by: Jensen Diaz
TAMPA, Fla – Tampa is home to 14 NFL athletes, tied for third with Ft. Lauderdale for hometowns with the most NFL players, trailing only Houston and Miami. Raiders WR Nelson Agholor, Bengals WR Auden Tate, Broncos LB Anthony Chickillo, and Texans CB Vernon Hargreaves are just a few of some popular NFL athletes native to Tampa.
This list doesn’t include several rostered players from Pinellas County including Falcons DE Dante Fowler, Patriots OT Isaiah Wynn, and Rams TE Tyler Higbee. Of all the successful NFL athletes to come from the Tampa Bay area over the years, Steelers WR Diontae Johnson will be the best. He will become a household name for football fans around the country after a pro-bowl worthy year, potentially leading the entire NFL in receptions.
His collegiate and NFL success is no surprise at all to me. After seeing him dominate the fastbreak for our AAU basketball team and comparing his superior athleticism to mine, I knew Toledo recruited a stud athlete. After totaling 2,235 yards and 23 touchdowns as a Rocket, the Pittsburgh Steelers wisely selected the Lennard High School product at the beginning of the third round, 66th overall.
Johnson recorded 59 catches last season despite the absence of Super Bowl champion QB Ben Roethlisberger. During his rookie campaign, Johnson built a rapport with struggling backups Mason Rudolph and Delvin Hodges. Even when the Steelers couldn’t find much success offensively, the quarterbacks relied on Johnson to be a spark.
The rookie from Toledo led the Steelers in catches, yards and touchdowns last year, beating out star teammate Juju Smith-Schuster. I expect Johnson to do the same again this year with Roethlisberger’s return.
Through two games this year, Johnson is tied for third in the NFL in targets. Meaning the only pass catchers in the NFL getting as many looks per game as him are Deandre Hopkins, Darren Waller and Amari Cooper. With Juju drawing double coverage from safeties over the top, Johnson speed and lateral quickness will make him a problem for defenses on short crossing and out routes.
With rookie Chase Claypool and JuJu lining up outside of the numbers a lot, Johnson is poised to have a monster year in the slot. His elite route running and soft hands will make him Big Ben’s favorite weapon. The duo already developed chemistry in the first two games, leading me to believe Diontae will lead the NFL in receptions this season, with Michael Thomas off to a slow start.
Diontae also displayed his break-away speed, vision and agility on multiple punt return touchdowns last year. The highlight reel returns earned him a spot as an All-Pro punt returner and alerted defensive and special teams coordinators everywhere. Johnson will continue to make Special Teams a strength of the team this year, despite a muffed punt in the Monday night opener against the Giants.
The Steelers are poised for a winning. Having a veteran gunslinger behind a great offensive line and a solid running game, as well as a defense that will force turnovers and get off the field, is a recipe for success. The national spotlight and potential playoff run will make Diontae Johnson a house-hold name, although fantasy experts were already aware.
It is early in his NFL career, but Diontae Johnson shows signs of greatness that will earn a contract extension from Pittsburgh in the next year or two. Given the NFL’s current collective bargaining agreement and market for star wide receivers, Johnson could be the highest paid athlete from Tampa ever, potentially beating Tampa native Gary Sheffield’s three-year, $39 million-dollar contract with the New York Yankees.