5 for Friday: Johnson's value shouldn't be discounted

Diontae Johnson had 86 receptions for 882 yards last season.

That was the 15th-most receptions in a single season in Steelers' history.

Yet his season is looked upon by some as a huge disappointment.

Johnson is never going to be a high-volume downfield target. But neither was Hines Ward, who averaged 12.1 yards per catch over the course of his career. Johnson has averaged 10.7 yards per catch in his four seasons.

That's not the only similarity between the two.

From 2001 through 2003, Ward was targeted 461 times. He recorded 301 receptions for 3,495 yards and 26 scores. That works out to an average of 107 catches for 1,238 yards and nine touchdowns over the course of 17 games.

Over the past three seasons, Johnson has 460 targets, catching 281 for 2,966 yards and 15 touchdowns. That averages out to 100 receptions for 1,050 yards and 5 touchdowns over a 17-game season.

This is not to denigrate Ward at all. He's one of the great receivers in team history.

But people don't treat Johnson in a similar light.

Some want to use the fact he failed to score as a reason to say Johnson had a bad season in 2022. That, however, was as much a result of the Steelers offense as a whole as it was anything Johnson did.

"We don't even talk about it," Steelers wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson said. "It's in the past."

Jackson wants Johnson to focus on the future. That's the proper approach. There's nothing that can be done about Johnson not scoring in 2022. It was more a freak occurrence than anything else.

George Pickens led the Steelers with four touchdown catches. Najee Harris had three and Pat Freiermuth two. Three other players had one each.

Nobody was a touchdown monster on this team in 2022.

Anyone who plays fantasy football knows that touchdown production for pass catchers varies greatly from year to year.

Johnson isn't a complete or perfect player. There were times last season when he gave up first-down yardage by running backward after catching the ball while trying to make a bigger play.

He's been in the league long enough to know that when you've got a first down, don't give up the first-down yardage trying to make a bigger play – especially on third down.

On the other hand, his 42 forced missed tackles over the past three seasons – according to Pro Football Focus – ranks sixth in the NFL among wide receivers, so there is a method to his madness, as frustrating as it can be at times.

And three years ago, drops became a major issue for him over the course of about a month of the season.

The last two seasons he's dropped 5 and 7 passes, which, considering the volume of balls thrown his way, isn't bad.

Nobody outworks Johnson when it comes to doing the little things to get better each day. And he's not a diva wide receiver by any stretch of the imagination.

Johnson is a valuable part of this team and a big reason why more is expected out of the offense in 2023. After all, a player who had 15 combined touchdowns in 2020 and 2021 is more likely to get into the end zone five or six times in 2023 than he is to fail to score again.

• So many people focus on what a team's "base" defense is. Now more than ever before, however, it really doesn't matter.

Last season, NFL teams played with five defensive backs on the field a league-record 63.3 percent of the time.

Perhaps in response to that, offenses threw the ball just 60.1 percent of the time, the lowest percentage of throws since 2011.

Not surprisingly, more running and less throwing led to scoring being down across the league. As pointed out here before, no team in the NFL averaged 30 points per game last season. In fact, no team averaged 29 points per game last season.

The trend is to play three wide receiver sets and get defensive backs on the field and then run the ball against the lighter boxes. And defenses are playing more two-deep zones to keep offenses from going deep, which, again, leads to more running.

If the Steelers, who have been a 3-4 team for decades now, lined up strictly in their "base" defense, teams would throw like crazy on them. But by playing with more defensive backs on the field, you're daring the opposing offense to run it, which is a win for the defense, especially if your defense can stop the run.

• The Steelers open the 2023 regular season against the San Francisco 49ers, a team that has advanced to the NFC Championship in three of the past four seasons.

San Francisco has a very good roster.

But the Steelers might be catching the 49ers at just the right time.

The 49ers currently have Brock Purdy, Trey Lance and Sam Darnold at quarterback. Lance and Darnold are both former third-overall picks in the draft, with the former being selected by San Francisco just a couple of years ago.

But the 49ers seem intent on getting Purdy, the last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, back in time for the regular season opener. Purdy suffered a torn ligament in his throwing elbow in last year's NFC Championship.

Purdy has been throwing with his personal quarterbacks coach and an orthopedist, but as we saw a couple of years ago with Ben Roethlisberger when he was coming back from torn elbow ligaments, that's just part of the process.

The 49ers have a bevy of weapons and head coach Kyle Shanahan is considered an offensive genius. But if Purdy doesn't play at all in the preseason – which is likely – how sharp is he going to be in the opener?

Remember, the Bengals didn't play Joe Burrow or their offensive line going into last year's season opener and the result was a victory for the Steelers in Cincinnati.

What the 49ers do with their QB situation in the preseason is going to be interesting to watch.

• The NBA has used a lottery to determine the order at the top of its draft for years. So has the NHL. Major League Baseball used it for the first time in its history this season.

That's how the Pirates, who had the third-worst record in MLB last season, wound up with the top pick this year, using the selection on pitcher Paul Skenes.

The lottery system helps keep tanking from becoming an issue.

If teams know they'll only have a better chance of having the No. 1-overall pick as opposed to a guarantee of it, there's less of a desire to outrank tank.

With a couple of quarterbacks at the top of this year's draft who are considered premium prospects, it will be interesting to see if any NFL teams flat-out tank this season.

The NFL, to this point, has continued to deny it has a need for a lottery.

But if some teams do tank to get an opportunity to select USC quarterback Caleb Williams or North Carolina's Drake Maye, the drums will start beating louder for the league to enact a draft lottery.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

• Nearly every year, there's a player or two who emerges from nowhere to not only claim a spot on the roster, but become an important part of the team.

Last year, nobody knew a lot about running back Jaylen Warren before training camp. A week into camp, it was obvious he was the team's best option behind Najee Harris.

Warren is something of an extreme case. After all, he went unselected in the draft before emerging as a solid No. 2 option and third-down back to Harris last season.

But there are some spots on this roster that remain up for grabs, most notably at the running back position once again.

Harris and Warren are givens on the roster. So is Connor Heyward as a fullback/tight end option.

Beyond that, who will be No. 3? At this point, we just don't know. And we really won't know for sure until the pads go on. That's when Warren emerged last season.

Right now, the group behind Harris and Warren includes Anthony McFarland, Jason Huntley and rookies Alfonzo Graham and Darius Hagans.

What's interesting about that group is that McFarland, Huntley and Graham are all 195 pounds or lighter. Only Hagans, at 6-0, 210 pounds, tops 200 pounds.

Harris, on the other hand, is listed at 242 pounds, while Warren is 215 pounds – at 5-foot-8.

Hagans is one on which to keep an eye. While the smaller backs are all slightly faster than the former Virginia State star, Hagans is no slouch when it comes to speed. He ran a 4.48-second 40-yard dash at the HCBU Combine in the spring.

And the key for any third back will be how they contribute on special teams. At 210 pounds, he'll have a better chance of doing that.

But it also could be that the Steelers' third running back might not currently be on their roster. We'll see when the pads go on.