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Tim Benz: Steelers, Diontae Johnson had to give up a lot to settle on contract

The Steelers’ new contract with wide receiver Diontae Johnson sums up that old adage from business negotiations.

A fair deal for both sides probably means that neither side is completely happy with the contract that has been signed.

I don’t think that always has to be true. Look at Sidney Crosby’s 12-year, $104 million deal inked with the Penguins prior to the 2012-13 season. Both sides seemed happy with it then. There is no reason to think any less of it now.

In the case of Johnson’s contract with the Steelers, though, that old axiom is 100% true. But before we get into why it was probably so hard for both sides to suck it up and get a deal done to end Johnson’s “hold-in,” let’s keep in mind that when all the dust settles, the Steelers know they will have a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver under contract through the next three seasons and Johnson just received a life-changing $27 million. Guaranteed.

So neither side should really feel like it lost in this negotiation either.

If Johnson continues to play at the level he has played his first three seasons, the Steelers will have locked up a very good receiver through at least the first three years of Kenny Pickett’s time in Pittsburgh, and Johnson is about to be paid at a rate 12 times the amount of money he’ll be making in 2022 — in a city where he claimed he wanted to stay.

From those angles, it all makes sense. Yet I’m still a bit surprised the Steelers and Johnson found an agreeable middle ground.

“You see the numbers,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t trying to look at everybody’s pockets. They deserve it. I can’t control what they got. I’m just worried about what I’ve got going on.”

From Johnson’s standpoint, the extension for the 2023 and 2024 seasons will pay him a reported $36.71 million over two years. Via, that $18.355 million average annual value slots him 17th among NFL wide receivers. The $27 million guaranteed at signing is 22nd.

And if you asked me where Johnson ranks as an NFL wide receiver based on his on-field performance and skillset, somewhere between 17 and 22 seems like a perfect fit.

So it appears to be a fair market-value contract. That’s a win for the Steelers. It’s not necessarily a win for Johnson. Because if the wide receiver market has taught us anything over the past two years, payment isn’t necessarily about being a fair reflection of your performance.

Forget being paid what you are worth. As an NFL wide receiver, it’s more about getting as overpaid as possible when it’s your turn. Look at Christian Kirk or Kenny Golladay getting $18 million a year or Corey Davis, Curtis Samuel and Robbie Anderson all getting between $20-$27 million at signing.

Johnson gave up his chance to get into the $25-$30 million per year range on the open market. If he put together a standout 2022, he would’ve gotten there. Somebody would’ve given him that money. That’s what Johnson is sacrificing by signing the deal that he did.

But now he’s also avoiding the risk of having to hit the market if his stats are deflated by injury, inefficiency from the Steelers’ revamped quarterback position or targets getting distributed elsewhere (especially intriguing rookie George Pickens) in an evolving offense.

Not to mention, he may have never gotten to the open market. The Steelers may have franchise tagged him. That pays the average of the top five players in the league at the position in question for one year. Based on AAV at this moment for NFL wide receivers, that figure is $27.39 million. Or just $390,000 more than Johnson’s guarantee.

Plus, the additional $9.71 million in the balance of the contract is all but assured. What are the odds of the Steelers cutting Johnson before 2024 starts? He’ll still only be 28 as the last year of that extension triggers.

What the Steelers are uncomfortably sacrificing is cap space and cash on a position they don’t usually pay big money. They’ve rarely felt the need to tie themselves to wide receivers seeking an expensive second contract. Only Hines Ward and Antonio Brown have been awarded those types of deals in the Heinz Field/Acrisure Stadium era. Although they did try to give big money to Mike Wallace. He just never found the middle ground with the Steelers that Johnson did.

Spotrac projects Johnson’s $18.335 million cap figure as the third-highest hit on the 2023 team behind only TJ Watt and Cameron Heyward and slightly ahead of Minkah Fitzpatrick. That salary would account for roughly 8% of what the franchise currently has committed towards the salary cap next year.

Historically, the Steelers have never seen the value in giving a receiver that much money after their first deal expires because — for as important as having a deep stable of good receivers is — there seems to be a constant supply of them through the draft, free agencies and trades.

But, apparently, in his first big move as the Steelers new general manager, Omar Khan saw Johnson as being worthy of such an investment.

One thing we have to consider about the cap space Johnson will consume is what the Steelers were going to do with it next offseason anyway. Sign a big-name free agent? That’s not what they do. Are they gonna sign a $15 million offensive tackle or cornerback on the open market? I doubt it. Steelers cap space is usually reserved for keeping their own.

In this case, it’s Diontae Johnson.

Whether or not Johnson or Khan is completely comfortable with how the deal wound up on paper.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.