Latrobe, Pa. (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers say they want to hold on to Deontay Johnson. The fourth-year wide receiver says he wants to stay in Pittsburgh.
Where things get tricky is how much it costs to do it.
Johnson is following in the footsteps of linebacker TJ Watt and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick last summer, a relatively new phenomenon in which a player arrives at training camp, participates in meetings and practices, and then leaves and does his own thing. The rest of his teammates get up to speed in practice to protect his health.
The strategy worked for Watt, who signed a massive contract on the eve of the 2021 season. It worked for Fitzpatrick, who did the same in June. Johnson is banking it will work for him, though the team is no closer to reaching a deal than the day Johnson arrived a week after returning to the home of traditional camp at St. Vincent’s College.
General manager Omar Khan said Tuesday that the team and Johnson’s representatives have been in contact, but declined to publicly discuss the nature of the talks. Khan reiterated the front office’s stance the entire offseason: The 26-year-old remains part of the team’s future.
“Let’s just say we want Deontay,” said Khan, who took over for retired general manager Kevin Colbert in May. “We’re excited to have him as a part of this team. We think he’ll be a Steeler for a long time.”
Johnson says he wants to, too, but his 5-foot-10, 183-pound frame seems intent on making sure the prospect is monetized before taking the field for team drills like 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 work.
“Obviously I want to be there,” Johnson said last week. “But, you know, some situations (do it) as a part of the business.”
Johnson spent part of Tuesday working out a bit with Fitzpatrick — who is rehabbing a wrist injury — following the wide receiver group as he went from station to station to stay engaged and talk to former Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor. They are involved on many levels. That doesn’t count for much this time of year for a team trying to find a new quarterback following the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger in January.
Coach Mike Tomlin has made a point to downplay Johnson’s status, saying Tuesday that his focus once again is on the players practicing. Khan declined to get specific when asked if the team was imposing any kind of penalty on Johnson.
“There are certainly options out there,” Khan said. “We’re focused on wanting Deontay here, so … as you can imagine we’ll keep those discussions internal.”
Johnson’s teammates are firmly in tune with his approach, though his decision is more of a gamble than Watt and Fitzpatrick’s.
There was no question what the Steelers would do last year to keep Watt, who rewarded their investment by winning the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award in 2021 with 22 1/2 sacks. It’s been the same for Fitzpatrick, who has been a difference-maker since the day he was acquired in a September 2019 trade with Miami.
The question is not whether Johnson is productive. He caught a career-high 107 passes last season, the sixth-highest single-season total in franchise history, and has shown an ability to make things happen in small spaces.
At issue is whether Johnson deserves compensation as one of the top players at a position where the market has skyrocketed. Just last week, San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel and Seattle’s DK Metcalf signed massive new contracts.
Khan called the rise in wide receiver salaries symptomatic of an era where salary increases are in lockstep with the salary cap.
“It’s part of the process,” he said. “Locally, regardless of position, I think those things will continue to grow. As the CBA grows, contracts will grow.”
Johnson, who has not spoken publicly since last Wednesday, stressed that he was trying not to worry about the “wrong things.”
“So I can (only) control it,” he said during the team’s first day of practice. “And, you know, keep praying that I’ll do something and if I don’t know, I’ll work.”
Notes: RB Najee Harris, WR Chase Claypool and TE Pat Freiermuth sat out Tuesday’s practice with what the team described as minor injuries. … Fitzpatrick, DT Tyson Alualu (knee) and DE Larry Ogunjobi (foot) are working their way back to practice.