Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Steelers sit out second round, chase character with WR, CB
When Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told receivers coach Darryl Drake to watch video of Diontae Johnson, it didn’t take long for the Toledo wide receiver to show why.
Watching Johnson proved Tomlin’s point.
But Drake wanted to see Johnson up close and personal.
“It was important to me what kind of character he had,” Drake said. “That’s extremely important. He checked all the boxes, as far as that’s concerned.”
That importance was magnified by the drama created by Antonio Brown, who was traded to the Oakland Raiders this offseason for third- and fifth-round picks. The Steelers used the third-rounder (66th overall) they acquired from Oakland to check the box on Johnson Friday night in the NFL Draft.
1. ‘Speed is overrated’: The concern with Johnson was his 4.53-second time in the 40-yard dash, regarded as slow for a receiver of his stature (5-foot-10, 181) by NFL standards.
When Drake said “speed is overrated,” he was speaking in reference to receivers who run 4.4 40s but don’t have strong all-around skill sets.
Johnson claims to have game speed that doesn’t show up on the stopwatch. He also noted that he isn’t a track star and didn’t train specifically for the 40-yard dash.
“I know I’m faster than what I ran at the combine,” Johnson said. “Once I get the ball in my hands, I play way faster.”
Drake raved about Johnson’s skill set, calling him the “most natural catcher I’ve seen in awhile” and saying he was impressed with his play against press coverage.
“As you guys know, this is a press league. DBs walk up in your face and they try to fingerprint you,” Drake said. “He’s very elusive at the line of scrimmage, and you need a guy that can get off the ball. He gets in and out of his breaks as well as anybody I’ve seen in a long time.”
2. Slotted for success: With a receiving corps led by JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Donte Moncrief, the Steelers targeted Johnson to play in the slot.
Drake went to great lengths to talk about Johnson’s ability to play inside or outside, but Johnson said he and Drake discussed him playing in the slot. That creates competition for Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers, who combined for 48 catches for 332 yards and a touchdown last season.
“Our offense is diverse. We really feel like our guys have to be able to play both,” Drake said. “He did both at Toledo. We’re going to put him in the best spot for us, best spot to give him the opportunity to do the things that he can do. He can work off that nickel. He can work off linebackers. But he can also line up off that single receiver side and beat one-on-one, man-to-man coverage – and that was the most intriguing thing about him.”
3. Something special: The most intriguing thing to me is Johnson’s ability as a return specialist.
He was first-team All-MAC as a punt returner (with an 83-yard touchdown) and second-team All-MAC as a kickoff returner (with a 98-yard touchdown) last season.
That’s where he should challenge Switzer, whose long punt return was 23 yards and who averaged 20.2 yards on kick returns last season.
“I’m versatile on the field so me being able to do that, I can come in and make an impact automatically,” Johnson said. “I’m looking forward to impress the coaches. I hope they believe in me and see that I can be accountable to step up.”
That’s another box the Steelers want to check.
4. Cornering the market: With their second third-round pick (No. 83 overall), the Steelers addressed another position of need by taking cornerback Justin Layne of Michigan State.
Unlike Johnson, Layne has great size (6-3, 185) and speed (4.45) but is relatively raw after switching from receiver to the secondary to start the final eight games of the 2016 season.
Layne was the 10th cornerback taken in the draft, the ninth selected on Friday. The run of corners in the second round saw many of the players sought by the Steelers taken before they made their first third-round pick.
That included three sets back-to-back: Bryon Murphy (Cardinals) and Rock Ya-Sin (Colts), Sean Bunting (Bucs) and Travyon Mullen (Raiders) and Joejuan Williams (Patriots) and Greedy Williams (Browns).
Cornerback was a concern, but the Steelers made wide receiver a position of greater priority.
5. Second guessing: As much as the Steelers tried to spin the idea that the pick they acquired from Oakland was akin to a second-rounder, it was still just an early third-rounder.
As much as the Steelers made a bold move by trading up 10 spots in the first round to take inside linebacker Devin Bush, it was odd to see them stay put in the second round – especially after general manager Kevin Colbert hinted that they could try to trade up again.
Taking Johnson so early looked like a reach, despite Drake’s assertion that a Tampa Bay coach cussed him out for stealing the player the Bucs were poised to pick.
By trading out of their second-round pick, the Steelers got Bush but passed on a chance to draft Penn State running back Miles Sanders (53rd), wide receivers JJ Arcega-Whiteside of Stanford (57th), Andy Isabella of UMass (62nd) and DK Metcalf of Ole Miss (64th).
With six picks remaining, expect the Steelers to focus on finding a tight end, outside linebacker and safety. Trading up to get those players might be a good idea.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .