The Steelers’ new contract with wide receiver Diontae Johnson sums up that old adage of trade negotiations.
A fair deal for both sides probably means that neither side is completely happy with the contract that was signed.
I don’t think that always has to be true. Check out Sidney Crosby’s 12-year, $104 million deal with the Penguins. before the 2012-13 season. Both sides seemed happy about it then. There is no reason to think less of it now.
In the case of Johnson’s contract with the Steelers, however, that old axiom is 100% true. But before we get into why it was probably so hard for both sides to suck it up and make a deal to end Johnson’s “holdout,” let’s remember that when all the dust settles, the Steelers know they’ll have a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver under contract through the next three seasons and Johnson just received a life-changing $27 million. Guaranteed.
So neither side should really feel that it has also lost in this negotiation.
If Johnson continues to play at the level he played his first three seasons, the Steelers will have locked up a very good receiver through at least the first three years of Kenny Pickett’s time in Pittsburgh, and Johnson is due at a rate. 12 times the amount of money he will earn in 2022 — in a city where he claimed he wants to stay.
From those angles, everything makes sense. However, I’m still a little surprised that the Steelers and Johnson have found a pleasant middle ground.
“You see the numbers,” Johnson said. “I didn’t try to look in everyone’s pockets. They deserve it. I can’t control what they got. I’m just worried about what’s happening to me.”
From Johnson’s point of view, the extension for the 2023 and 2024 seasons will pay him a reported $36.71 million over two years. Yours Spotrac.com, that $18.355 million average annual value ranks him 17th among NFL wide receivers. The $27 million guaranteed at signing is 22nd.
And if you were to ask me where Johnson ranks as an NFL wide receiver based on his on-field performance and skill, somewhere between 17 and 22 seems like a perfect fit.
So it appears to be a fair market value contract. That’s a win for the Steelers. It’s not necessarily a win for Johnson. Because if the wide receiver market has taught us anything over the last couple of years, it’s that pay isn’t necessarily about being a fair reflection of your performance.
Forget getting paid what you’re worth. As an NFL wide receiver, it’s more about getting as much overpaid as possible when it’s your turn. Look at Christian Kirk or Kenny Golladay making $18 million per year or Corey Davis, Curtis Samuel and Robbie Anderson all getting between $20-$27 million at signing.
Johnson gave up his chance to make $25-$30 million a year on the open market. Had he put together an outstanding 2022, he would have gotten there. Someone would give him that money. That’s what Johnson is sacrificing by signing the deal he made.
But now he also avoids the risk of having to hit the market if his stats are deflated by injury, ineffectiveness from the Steelers’ revamped quarterback or targets distributed elsewhere (especially intriguing rookie George Pickens) in an evolving offense.
Not to mention, he may never have made it to the open market. The Steelers may have franchise tagged him. That pays the average of the top five players in the league at the position in question over one year. Based on AAV right now for NFL wide receivers, that figure is $27.39 million. Or just $390,000 more than Johnson’s guarantee.
In addition, the additional $9.71 million in the balance of the contract is almost guaranteed. What are the odds of the Steelers cutting Johnson before 2024 begins? He will still only be 28 years old as the final year of that extension kicks in.
What the Steelers are uncomfortably sacrificing is cap space and cash at a position they don’t typically pay big money for. They rarely felt the need to attach themselves to wide receivers looking for an expensive second contract. Only Hines Ward and Antonio Brown were awarded those types of deals in the Heinz Field/Acrisure Stadium era. Although they tried to give big money to Mike Wallace. He just never found the middle ground with the Steelers that Johnson did.
Spotrac projects Johnson’s $18.335 million as the third-highest cap hit on the 2023 team behind only TJ Watt and Cameron Heyward and slightly ahead of Minkah Fitzpatrick. That salary would make up about 8% of what the franchise currently commits to the salary cap next year.
Historically, the Steelers have never seen the value in giving a receiver that much money after their first deal expires because — as important as having a deep stable of good receivers is — there seems to be a steady supply of them through the draft, for free. agency and businesses.
But, apparently, in his first big move as the Steelers’ new general manager, Omar Khan saw Johnson as worthy of such an investment.
One thing we have to consider about the cap space Johnson will consume is what the Steelers will do with it next offseason anyway. Sign a big name free agent? They don’t do that. Will they sign a $15 million offensive tackle or cornerback on the open market? I doubt that. Steelers cap space is usually reserved for keeping their own.
In this case, it’s Diontae Johnson.
Whether or not Johnson or Khan are completely comfortable with how the deal ended up on paper.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at email@example.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.