Quiet debut for 3rd-round pick Diontae Johnson
His first day in a Pittsburgh Steelers uniform was a stark contrast to what Diontae Johnson experienced in his final two seasons at Toledo that led to his selection as a third-round draft pick.
A two-time all-conference wide receiver and punt returner, Johnson mostly was a bystander Friday morning on the first day of rookie minicamp.
While six other wide receivers — a combination of first-year holdovers, undrafted free agents and tryout participants — cycled in and out of team drills, Johnson stood by the side of position coach Darryl Drake and watched.
Johnson participated in the individual portion of the 1-hour, 45-minute workout, but he did little after that.
Johnson said he was not injured — “I’m fine. I’m fine right now.” — and deferred questions about his lack of participation to coach Mike Tomlin.
Johnson, though, welcomed the chance to put on a uniform for the first time since Toledo’s season ended Dec. 21. The rookie minicamp continues Saturday and concludes Sunday before players return for organized team activities (OTAs) on May 21.
“It’s exciting being able to play football again, being able to run routes and catch balls and learn the plays,” Johnson said.
The inactivity for Johnson was unusual considering he rarely sat still in his redshirt sophomore and junior seasons at Toledo. In those two years, he totaled 123 catches for 2,039 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Johnson left school early and, while attending the NFL Combine, he roomed with Kentucky running back Benny Snell, whom the Steelers drafted in the fourth round. Johnson and Snell share the same agent.
“Diontae is amazing, he’s a cool guy, cool dude, got some hands, and I’m excited that we get Part II,” Snell said. “When he got drafted and I got drafted, I am like, ‘Part II, better get ready.’ ”
After dealing Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders, the Steelers used one of the draft picks they acquired in that trade — No. 66 overall — to take Johnson and begin the inevitable comparisons to the All-Pro receiver.
In addition to having comparable measurables — Johnson is 5-foot-10, 183 pounds — and ties to the Mid-American Conference, they share similar playing traits.
Johnson has heard them all.
“Route running, able to catch the ball, get out of my breaks, able to run every route in the route tree,” he said, rattling off the scouting report.
Johnson doesn’t mind the comparison.
“It’s a good thing because he’s a great player,” he said. “He’s somebody I used to watch. I still look up to him. He’s a great player, but I can only be myself.”
Brown overcame the stigma associated with playing at a non-Power 5 school to become the only receiver in NFL history to catch at least 100 passes in six consecutive seasons. Johnson doesn’t see his level of competition as a drawback, either. As a junior, he caught eight passes for 66 yards and two touchdowns in a game against Miami (Fla).
“To me, it was just like practice, it was playing like another school,” he said. “I just went out and played and did the best for my team.”
Expectations for Johnson will be realistic for his rookie season. He enters trailing starters JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington, in addition to free agent Donte Moncrief, on the depth chart. With his ability to play in the slot, Johnson’s competition for playing time on offense could come from Eli Rogers or Ryan Switzer — at least initially.
“I’m just trying to come in and contribute and do what I can do,” Johnson said, “be myself and help out in any way that I can.”
Johnson is joining a youthful position room. Moncrief is 25, Washington is 23 and Smith-Schuster, at 22, is four months younger than Johnson.
“I can learn from them even though we’re all young because they’ve been here, played and had success,” Johnson said. “I can come in and learn from them, apply as much stuff as they tell me into my game.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .