Tim Benz: It’s what Steelers GM Omar Khan did not say about Diontae Johnson’s contract that matters most

Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Omar Khan made his feelings about Diontae Johnson abundantly clear Tuesday. He wants him on the team. This year and moving forward.

One thing Khan didn’t make quite as obvious is that he wants Johnson to stay at the franchise’s preferred salary. Not the vastly expanding going rate set for receivers in the booming NFL marketplace.

“Let’s just say we want Diontae. We’re excited to have him as part of this team. we hope he’s going to be a Steeler for a long time,” Khan said.

At this point, am I allowed to insert a fluffy, white thought bubble over Khan’s head with the words “at the right price” popping up in bold letters?

Speaking for the first time as the team’s general manager during a training camp setting, Khan answered 26 questions from reporters. According to the team’s official transcript, 10 of them were about Johnson’s contract status.

The wide receiver is entering the final year of his entry contract, and he wants an extension. Much like TJ Watt during training camp last year, Johnson is only doing individual drills on the Saint Vincent College practice fields. He is avoiding team activities.

According to Spotrac.com, after a massive wave of big money signings at the receiver position this offseason, 18 different receivers are making at least $18 million per year. There are 25 wide receivers who are making at least $15 million.

“I think it’s a function of the times and the system that we’re in,” Khan said. “It’s just part of the process. Positionally, regardless of the position, I assume those things are going to continue to grow. As the CBA grows, the contracts will grow.”

After becoming a late addition to the AFC’s Pro Bowl roster last year, Johnson could easily build an argument that he is better than many of his peers who are making that kind of money.

That doesn’t mean Khan has to listen to it. In fact, my guess is that he won’t.

That’s not to say the Steelers won’t extend Johnson. They might. I wouldn’t rule out a Hunter Renfrow-esque two-year $32 million extension. But I bet that Johnson wants a lot more money and a longer term than that.

And I bet the Steelers would be hesitant to go that far.

If this offseason has proven anything, it’s that you can find receivers on the free agent and trade markets. Plus, you can find them in the draft. In terms of average annual value, six of those top 25 receivers got their deals from new teams. Three of them (Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, AJ Brown) are in the top six of receiver contracts. Not to mention that 10 of the top 50 picks in the 2022 draft were wideouts.

As good as Johnson might be, the Steelers may see more value in drafting another receiver or two in the first few rounds as they did twice with George Pickens and Calvin Austin III this spring. That could prove to be a better course of action than spending free-agent dollars on JuJu Smith-Schuster and Ray-Ray McLoud.

My hunch is that Johnson is right. I bet he does get somewhere in the $20 million range this off-season from another team. Maybe not $25 million. But certainly more than what the Steelers will offer this summer.

If Johnson wants to bet on himself and risk free agency — or being hit with the franchise tag when the Steelers would only have to pay roughly $27 million for one year — he should do that. And he should be commanded for his confidence in his skills.

But it’s not required of Khan to dole out that much of Art Rooney II’s money (and cap space) to provide Johnson security.

“I know what to expect. I can handle it. I can’t take it personally because it’s business at the end of the day. That’s what I’m learning. Slowly. Stuff gets frustrating. It’s just how you respond to it,” Johnson said last week.

So long as Johnson continues his hold-in, though, the Steelers are going to have options to consider. The Steelers may have the same offensive coordinator as last year in Matt Canada. But the offense is supposed to have many new wrinkles, given Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement.

New QB Mitch Trubisky has struggled to get the first-team offense in a flow against the first-team defense without Johnson and three other injured skill position starters — tight end Pat Freiermuth, running back Najee Harris and wide receiver Chase Claypool.

Coach Mike Tomlin and Khan should start speaking with Johnson and his agent and tell them it’s time for the receiver to start practicing or the numbers he covets for free agency may be compromised if the offense gets off to a bad start or begins shifting to other targets .

Although, with Claypool and Freiermuth both missing significant chunks of camp because of injury, that could prove to be a hollow tactic.

“You want everyone out practicing. We’ve taken the approach that we’re using (Johnson’s absence) as an opportunity to look at the other guys that are practicing,” Khan said.

That being said, another option is a trade.

Both the Denver Broncos (Tim Patrick, out for the season, ACL) and the Dallas Cowboys (James Washington, 6-10 weeks, foot) have lost receivers to significant injuries during training camp practices. If either franchise is willing to give up at least a second-round pick, the Steelers may have a chance to get a talented receiver in that round as they have in the past with Smith-Schuster, Pickens and Claypool.

The Steelers don’t want it to come to that. I believe Khan. They like Johnson enough to keep him and maybe even make him their No. 1 wide receiver at his current rate of pay ($3 million against the cap) again in 2022.

The prospect of a trade is just business. As is Johnson’s hold-in.

As is the practice of saying all the right things publicly but saying what you really mean only in your head.

That’s exactly what Khan did Tuesday.


Our latest Bella Construction “Letters from Camp” podcast features a conversation with Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada. We discuss the change at quarterback, Najee Harris’ workload, tight end usage, wide receiver roles, and more.

Listen: Tim Benz reports from Steelers training camp

Tim Benz is a Tribune Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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