WR Johnny Holton has distinct role in mind for Steelers
At first glance, it’s almost impossible to ignore — a coincidental quirk that results in a far-too-easy punchline.
So, Johnny Holton, as the guy who switched places with Antonio Brown, you’re the perennial All Pro’s replacement, right?
“Oh no,” the veteran wide receiver said, a combination of laughing and recoiling in horror at the comparison. “I didn’t think that at all. I don’t look at it that way at all.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t see it that way, either. Holton, most certainly, isn’t thought of as Brown’s replacement. He wasn’t even part of what the team received as compensation for trading Brown, either.
But Holton just happens to play the same position as Brown (wide receiver), and he just happens to have played for the team the Steelers sent Brown to (the Oakland Raiders).
So, in that sense, Holton and Brown replaced each other on their respective rosters.
No disrespect to Holton, but the comparisons end there. Brown seems destined for the Hall of Fame; Holton was unemployed six weeks ago.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Holton won’t be a player who brings value to the Steelers this coming season. A veteran of 32 NFL regular-season games over the past three years, when the Steelers signed Holton in May they had a specialized role in mind for him.
“My role with the Raiders was pretty much a ‘gunner,’ ” Holton said, referring to the player who is often speedy and lines up on the outside on the punt and kick coverage teams. “And on other special teams. And just a vertical route runner, too.”
… The grind don’t stop 🤐 pic.twitter.com/1yYinBRun9
— Johnny Holton (@Johnno_uc3) May 30, 2019
The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Holton is known for blazing straight-line speed. And in recent years his job description with the Raiders centered around him being a special-teams gunner as well as No. 5 receiver who could hit the “home-run ball” as a deep threat.
If that sounds familiar, it sounds a lot like a player the Steelers had on their roster the past five seasons: Darrius Heyward-Bey.
“Yeah, DHB,” Holton said, eyes lighting up. “He used to play with the Raiders, too.”
Heyward-Bey was a first-round pick of Oakland in 2009, though he never lived up to that No. 7 overall pick status. But he settled into his gunner role with the Steelers, became a favorite of Mike Tomlin and the coaching staff and carved himself out a 10-year NFL career.
At age 32 and with his contract expired, though, the Steelers did not bring Heyward-Bey back for 2019. It’s not the most significant void in the world, but that did leave a hole on the Steelers’ roster.
“Gunner is a big part of my game, so I look forward to coming in here and competing and just filing that role,” Holton said after a minicamp session earlier this month at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “Try to do the best I can do to be on this team.
“I’m gonna show them my speed, vertical guy — whatever they have me doing, I’m going to work best at it and do it to the best of my ability.”
— Forward Mile NFL (@ForwardMileNFL) October 1, 2017
Holton had three touchdowns among 11 career regular-season catches (an elite 22.9-yard average) over 31 games in 2016-17 before a brief look at cornerback on the Raiders practice squad last season.
With JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Diontae Johnson, Donte Moncrief, Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers on the roster, it’s difficult to envision another wide receiver making the final 53-man roster.
Then again, there’s always room for an established and reliable special-teamer, particularly one with kick returning in his background like Holton.
So even if Holton isn’t up to the task of replacing Brown, he might just be well-equipped to replace Heyward-Bey.
“I feel like everywhere you go, you’ve got to just come in and work and compete, get with your new teammates so that they can have trust in you to be on their team and ball with them,” Holton said. “That’s all I’m trying to do right now.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .