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Steelers camp: Omar Khan plays hardball with Diontae Johnson; QBs trending up

LATROBE, Pa. — It may have not gone down exactly like this, but it sure wasn’t far from it: Omar Khan slaps down a contract offer on a table to Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson and says, “This is what we will pay you.”

Even though Khan spent years doing the same thing for the Steelers, this is the first year he has the general manager title attached to his name. Khan, who replaced Kevin Colbert in late May as the team’s GM, quickly signed Minkah Fitzpatrick to a record deal and inked Chris Boswell on Monday to yet another record deal.

A sign of a new regime? Not really.

Johnson had been holding himself out of practice for the better part of the week with the same offer on the table as it was prior. Khan had a market price in mind, and it was going to have to be Johnson’s decision to take it or not.

It’s not like Johnson caved, because he signed a two-year, $37 million extension with $27 million guaranteed and $17.5 million to sign. But the original contract was presented to him weeks ago.

“The offer they gave me, I stuck with it,” Johnson said. “I could’ve gotten a little more, but I’m good, I’m happy and I am ready to go.”

Khan showed he wasn’t going to budge on market value. You can say this was his first real negotiation since being named GM. The other two were going to get done. Here, Khan had stuck to his guns and shown he won’t be pushed around as a GM. Director of football administration Cole Marcoux also had a part in it, but this deal sets a good precedent for the organization.

Khan can do this job.

“I don’t talk a lot about negotiations and things of that nature,” Mike Tomlin said. “I leave that to O, I know he addressed you guys regarding it. Just know, from a coach’s perspective, I’m glad it’s behind us and we can get focused on collective and individual development.”

Historically, the Steelers rarely pay receivers on multiyear deals past their first contract. Hines Ward and Antonio Brown were the exceptions, but they were also generational players. It’s unknown if Johnson is that, or if the Steelers view him that way.

One thing is certain: Receivers from the 2019 draft class have cashed in big this offseason, including $24 million per year recently to D.K. Metcalf and Deebo Samuel. A.J. Brown and Terry McLaurin also signed deals in that range, while Hunter Renfrow — a fifth-round pick of the Raiders in 2019 — got $16 million per season over two years.

Johnson slotted in right in front of Renfrow, and he will be able to negotiate a new deal in 24 months when the cap is expected to grow significantly.

“You see the numbers, but I wasn’t looking at everyone’s pockets,” Johnson said of watching other receivers get paid. “They deserve it at the end of the day. I can’t control what they got going on, so I’m just worried about what I got going on. We were able to come up with something and happy to come to the table, get something done, and I was happy we got there.

“I feel like I took the right deal. I am not worried about what everybody else is making. The market is up there, but God got something for me, and this was the right deal for me.”

As recently as two days ago, reports had the chances of Johnson signing looking bleak. The only thing that changed from that point until Thursday was Johnson feeling he needed to get back on the field, and $37 million isn’t bad.

“I thought like that a couple of times (like it wasn’t going to get done), but no, I prayed about it last night,” Johnson said. “I felt like it was the right decision. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. I was thinking about that, too, but at the end of the day I love being a Steeler. I love it here; I want to finish my career here.

“Just being around my teammates and being around the atmosphere, and the energy that they show every day; you want to be around a group of guys like that every day. I felt like I made the right choice. I want to continue to be here for a long time.”

Observations from Day 10 (practice No. 8) of Steelers camp:

1. Neither Tomlin nor Johnson would admit it, but it is too much of a coincidence what occurred on the first one-on-one rep of Johnson’s camp. It had to be planned. Johnson got past Ahkello Witherspoon and caught a pretty pass down the far sidelines on a perfect throw from Mitch Trubisky.

Even though Johnson hasn’t fully participated in any practice this year, he continued to make plays on the field. After a week of watching non-starting receivers run routes and go get the ball, Johnson’s presence showed a different level of talent compared to the rest who were out there.

Now, he did get fatigued on this 90-degree day at Saint Vincent College. He asked a trainer for an ice rag following a period so he could put it over his head and cool down. But in Johnson’s defense, that was a common sight on this day.

2. The quarterback hierarchy remained the same, with Trubisky getting the first-team reps, followed by Mason Rudolph and then Kenny Pickett. But all three very well could have had their best days on Thursday. Rudolph continued to be the most accurate out of them all, but Pickett seems to have turned the corner a little bit with his decision-making, reads and his velocity on his ball. He still showed that he can complete passes on the run with the best of them.

3. If you had to pick the worst out of them all, it had to be Trubisky, and I am basing that mostly on one critical throw. A Seven Shots reps, which, as we all know is simulated a goal line play, was intended for Anthony McFarland Jr. but should have been intercepted by Cameron Sutton. McFarland didn’t run the best of routes and may have left Trubisky out to dry, but still, those are the kinds of throws that lose you quarterback competitions.

The Steelers are looking for the quarterback who has the highest floor to be their starter, which means being a very consistent quarterback who makes all the right decisions. Forcing a throw to the outside inside the 5-yard line is not the right decision. During 7-on-7 later, Trubisky missed all four of his attempts, which are generally considered easy throws.

4. The defense moved their Seven Shots winning streak to six in a row with a 4-3 win:

    1. Trubisky read outside leverage on George Pickens in the slot and threw a laser in between his numbers for the conversion. It didn’t hurt that the cornerback slipped on the wet turf on the play. (1-0, offense)
    2. Benny Snell Jr. was stuffed on an inside run play. (1-1)
    3. Trubisky got pressure from the outside, stepped up and threw it out of the back of the end zone. (2-1, defense).
    4. Trubisky threw quickly outside to McFarland and was almost picked off by Sutton. (3-1, defense)
    5. Rudolph’s fade to Miles Boykin in the near corner was defended by James Pierre. (4-1, defense)
    6. Rudolph connected with Jace Sternberger for the easy conversion. (4-2, defense)
    7. Pickett rifled a pass to the corner that was hauled in by Cody White. (Defense wins, 4-3)

5. It is difficult to evaluate the offensive line as a whole in training camp, but let’s just say this: The first group was able to move some bodies around, both in team periods and one-on-one drills. Mason Cole looked the best out of them all, but in the live period, Kevin Dotson showed why the Steelers were so high on him as a rookie. Dan Moore was good in the drill as well.

Meanwhile, Kendrick Green, who is competing with Dotson to start at left guard, was beaten by Khalil Davis in back-to-back reps. At this point, Dotson appears to be getting better and Green a little stagnant.

“I could make judgments, but we’ll be in a stadium in a week or so and more information will be available to us in terms of evaluating, and I’m one to always display patience in that regard,” Tomlin said.

6. With Jaylen Warren getting a lot of notice this week, McFarland has snuck under the radar. He put together his third good practice in a row on Thursday. That was most noticeable when running between the tackles, even though he did take a jet sweep late in practice, made a move on safety Donovan Stiner and went 60-plus yards for the score and also made a twisting catch around Myles Jack out of the backfield. McFarland was good on this day from guard to guard. It is the same thing he showed last year during camp that didn’t translate into the season.

7. With Pat Freiermuth still out and Connor Heyward struggling some, the Steelers got a productive day out of tight end Jace Sternberger. A 2019 third-round pick of the Packers, Sternberger signed during the offseason to provide depth. He has been overwhelmed at times during the first week but showed some ball skills on Thursday. Blocking isn’t his strength, and he is going to need more than one practice, but it was worth mentioning that he continued to show up on Thursday in the passing game.

8. The Steelers put the ball on the ground twice Thursday. Warren got it punched out by Justin Layne between the tackles, prompting players to make sure Tomlin saw it. Tomlin retorted: “You didn’t recover it, so it doesn’t count.” Later in practice, Snell appeared to have fumbled on the sidelines, but there was no definite ruling.

9. With officials on campus for the second day, a lot of pass interference flags were thrown. I don’t know if this means the secondary is too handsy or the referees are in preseason form, but there have been several PI calls in two practices, on both sides of the ball.

“We’re having an OPI discussion, offensive pass interference, and extended elbow contact above the waist is a trigger for officials in terms of officiating that component of a play. And so, they get to hear little minutia like that that helps them play the game and play it at a professional level,” Tomlin said.

10. Minkah Fitzpatrick was removed from the non-football injury list and participated in practice for the first time. … Sutton left with a lower-body injury. … Practice was cut short by 11 plays because of a severe thunderstorm approaching the campus. … With T.J. Watt given another day of rest, Tuzar Skipper jumped into a first-team role. … Once again, the guys who popped out were Anthony Miller and Delontae Scott, but you also have to start throwing the Davis brothers into the mix, defensive tackles Carlos and Khalil. … The Steelers have yet to practice a live field goal this camp.

(Photo of Omar Khan and Art Rooney II: Gene J. Puskar/ Associated Press) 

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