Off to a nice start

Dale Lolley has covered the Steelers since 1993 as a beat writer and is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio.

Diontae Johnson wasn't the first receiver taken in the 2019 draft. He wasn't even the second.

But an argument could be made that he was the most productive.

Johnson finished his first season with the Steelers leading all rookies in receptions with 59, while finishing sixth in receiving yards (690) and tied for third in touchdowns among receivers with six – five receiving and one on a return.

Not bad for a player selected with the second pick of the third round and the 10th receiver taken in last year's draft.

"I keep track with most of those guys. Most of them I know," Johnson said of the other receivers taken in 2019. "Everybody has been playing well from what I've been seeing. That's what we all talked about, when everybody gets to the NFL, we'll see who stands out on each team. That's what we've been doing. I'm trying to come out on top."

He did a good job of that for the Steelers in his rookie season.

Johnson's receptions were two off the team's rookie record of 61 set in 1999 by Troy Edwards.

Johnson not only led all NFL rookies in receptions in 2019, he led the NFL in punt return average at 12.4 yards per attempt. The Steelers hadn't had a player lead the NFL in punt return average since Johnny Sample did it in 1961.

"He's a special talent," offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. "He can win one-on-ones against good football players. He has a knack for run after (the catch). The future with him is very bright. I think he knows that, and we've got to continue to grow that."

He set the bar pretty high for himself.

But great rookie seasons are nothing new for Steelers receivers, especially in the Ben Roethlisberger era.

JuJu Smith-Schuster burst onto the scene in 2017, catching 58 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. In 2014, Martavis Bryant caught eight touchdown passes in just over half a season as a rookie. Mike Wallace led all NFL receivers with a 19.4 yards per catch average on his 38 receptions as a rookie in 2009. And Santonio Holmes caught 49 passes for 824 yards and two touchdowns while leading the Steelers in punt and kick return average in 2006.

Thing is, Johnson only had Roethlisberger throwing him the ball for six quarters in 2019.

Johnson posted his numbers despite the Steelers ranking 31st in passing yards with a much more conservative offensive attack with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges at quarterback.

Johnson performed much like late wide receiver coach Darryl Drake felt he would when he turned on tape of the young receiver in the spring.

"(Mike Tomlin) saw him and said, 'I want you to watch this guy.'" Drake said after the Steelers selected Johnson in the draft. "When I saw him, I said I see why you want me to watch this guy. He's very talented and a very gifted player. The film doesn't lie. It tells you what you need and then the more homework you do, you either confirm it, or you say, no he's not quite what you thought he was. Our consensus was this guy's got it."

Johnson showed that excitement was well founded. And he excelled in 2019 despite the loss of Drake to a heart attack in training camp that rocked not just the Steelers receivers, but the team as a whole.

"Coach Drake was a good guy. From the first time I sat down and talked to him, I know he spoke highly of me," Johnson said. "For him to push for me, coming from a school like Toledo, we've got guys in the league because there's talent everywhere, but for him to push like that for me, it's crazy. I would never have expected to be in the position I'm in now if it wasn't for him."

The position in which he now finds himself is the next in line of the great receivers drafted by the Steelers.

From Lynn Swann and John Stallworth in the legendary 1974 draft, to Louis Lipps in 1984, Hines Ward in 1998, Plaxico Burress in 2000, or any of the more recent draft hits by the team, Johnson knows the team's legacy in identifying receivers.

And that's important to him.

"They draft a lot of receivers and they know good receivers when they see one," Johnson said. "They know how to get them going in the right direction so they can have a successful career. I'm going to have a successful career here, and hopefully I'm here for a long time so I can fulfill that. I'm just trying to help this team win games and keep getting better along the way."

rookie WR Stats