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Diontae Johnson

Steeler gets his wish -- or does he?

Nothing like shaking up the wave of free agent signings with a good old-fashioned player for player trade. Diontae Johnson is out in Pittsburgh, traded to the Carolina Panthers for cornerback Donte Jackson -- if their lockers are denoted by initials, they can just take each other's. Who are the winners and losers?

Initial thought is that the Steelers didn't get much for their top wideout the past few seasons. Jackson has been a starter since being selected in the second round back in 2018, and he recorded 12 interceptions his first four seasons. But he tore his Achilles midway through the 2022 season, and he perhaps wasn't the same in 2023 -- started all year, but no interceptions and about half as many passes defensed in the new defense. But it was a good defense (No. 1 against the pass; Pittsburgh was below-average), so a reasonable addition for the Steelers, if Jackon's health is right. He'll slot right in as a starter opposite Joey Porter Jr. (they cut Patrick Peterson), giving the team a pretty strong-looking secondary.

But some of the trade might be the Steelers wanting to move on from a malcontent. Johnson has complained about his role in the offense, and there was some controversy last year when he exhibited a lack of effort on a play or two. He was rumored to be on the trading block a week ago, and now that's happened.

George Pickens, certainly, gets a boost from this move. Johnson missed four games a year ago, and Pickens had his only games with double-digit targets in two of those. Collectively, he caught 17 passes and 2 TDs on 33 targets those games, averaging 89 yards -- 22 above his season averages, and he had just 3 TDs in his other 13 games. Pittsburgh is going to have to find another starting wideout (having cut Allen Robinson, fourth-rounder Calvin Austin is the likeliest incumbent; seems more likely they add a veteran than rely on him), but they do look better at quarterback with Russell Wilson in for Kenny Pickett.

For Carolina, it's a nice get. Few would dispute they gave top pick Bryce Young little chance to succeed last year. (No offense to Adam Thielen.) So at the start of free agency they've given him a brand new guard duo, Robert Hunt and Damien Lewis, and a new veteran wideout. Johnson is saying the right things, tweeting "Let's get it!" after the trade. With Thielen, Johnson and hopefully a second-year leap from Jonathan Mingo, maybe Young will have more appealing places to go with the ball (and more time to find them behind an upgraded line).

I can't help but notice, though, that it remains to be seen how happy Johnson himself will be this move. Last year he worked with one of the league's less-accurate passers in Kenny Pickett, but now he's joining one of the very few quarterbacks who was even worse. (Had he stayed in Pittsburgh, he'd have been working with one of the more accurate guys in Russell Wilson.)

Table shows last year's quarterbacks, sorted by completion percentage (minimum 300 pass attempts). Maybe his presence and an improved line gets Young higher in this regard, but for now we've got Johnson making at best a lateral move in terms of quarterback efficiency.

2023Dak Prescott410590451669.5%369
2023Kirk Cousins216311233169.5%185
2023Brock Purdy308444428069.4%3111
2023Tua Tagovailoa388560462469.3%2914
2023Derek Carr375548387868.4%258
2023Jared Goff407605457567.3%3012
2023Lamar Jackson307457367867.2%247
2023Patrick Mahomes401597418367.2%2714
2023Joe Burrow244365230966.8%156
2023Josh Allen385579430666.5%2918
2023Russell Wilson297447307066.4%268
2023Trevor Lawrence370564401665.6%2114
2023Jalen Hurts352538385865.4%2315
2023Justin Herbert297456313465.1%207
2023Mac Jones224345212064.9%1012
2023Geno Smith323499362464.7%209
2023Baker Mayfield364566404464.3%2810
2023Jordan Love372579415964.2%3211
2023Desmond Ridder249388283664.2%1212
2023C.J. Stroud319499410863.9%235
2023Sam Howell388612394663.4%2121
2023Joshua Dobbs262417246462.8%1310
2023Matthew Stafford326521396562.6%2411
2023Gardner Minshew305490330562.2%159
2023Aidan O'Connell213343221862.1%127
2023Kenny Pickett201324207062.0%64
2023Justin Fields227370256261.4%169
2023Zach Wilson221368227160.1%87
2023Bryce Young315527287759.8%1110

In sum, seems like an upgrade for Pickens, Young (who has nowhere to go but up) and whoever the Steelers start in Johnson's spot. Perhaps the Steelers defense, too. But a probable downgrade for Russell Wilson, and also for Johnson himself, unless Young makes a dramatic step up.

--Andy Richardson

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