Analysis of Steelers Restricted Free Agent Will Johnson, Fullback Extraordinaire

Redistricted free agents are an increasingly rare breed in the NFL thanks to the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement. The Pittsburgh Steelers, however, have three of them.

Our Steelers 2015 Free Agent Focus has already covered Robert Golden and Antwon Blake and now it turns its attention to Steelers restricted free agent Will Johnson.

Capsule Profile of Will Johnson’s Career with the Steelers

History has likely forgotten, (although thanks to Google, it can probably be remembered again) who Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin were traveling to the University of West Virginia’s 2012 Pro Day to see. It certainly wasn’t to see a fullback.

Yet while they were there, a full back caught their eyes.

That fullback was Will Johnson, who had finished at WVA in 2010 but his phone remained silent on Draft Day. Johnson’s workout must have been pretty impressive, because showed Tomlin and Colbert enough to get an invitation to St. Vincents. This contract came despite the fact that one of Todd Haley’s first moves was to formally shift David Johnson from hybrid tight end-fullback to just fullback.

  • Even though he looked good in Latrobe, it would seem that Will Johnson faced an uphill fight for his NFL life.

Then Marcus Gilbert struck, landing on Johnson in the Steelers preseason loss to the Eagles, and tearing David Johnson’s ACL. With David Johnson going on IR, Will Johnson won the starting fullback job, and has held it since.

Once upon a time, fullbacks ran the ball in the Steelers offense.

That changed with Bill Cowher’s arrival. Since the Chin arrived in Pittsburgh, John L. Williams has been the only fullback to get significant carries in the Steelers offense. Will Johnson is the proves the post-Cowher rule rather than exception. His regular season rushing numbers a four carries for 7 yards.

Johnson is a little more productive in receiving, but still his totals are 29 catches for 219 yards.

  • But Johnson’s job isn’t to carry or catch the ball, its to pave the way for those who do.

And Johnson has done an commendable job at that.

Le’Veon Bell deserves credit for his jaw dropping 2014 season. But Will Johnson helped pave the way.

The Case for Tendering Will Johnson

Fullbacks are a rare breed in the NFL. As more and more colleges go to the spread offense, there just getting harder and harder to find. Johnson himself can also do double duty as a tight end.

  • While that position flexibility is nice, the Steelers need Johnson to be a battering ram, and he’s served quite well in that capacity.

Given that fullbacks are in such short supply in the NFL, the case for tendering Will Johnson is stronger than the Steelers other restricted free agents. No, no team is going to pay him insane amounts of money, guaranteed or not.

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But the fact that NFL fullbacks are in short supply does not mean that there are not coaches, old school coaches, who do not covet them. In that light the Steelers would be do wise to at least ensure right first refusal on Will Johnson.

The Case Against Tendering Will Johnson

The case against tendering Will Johnson is pretty simple, fullbacks may be rare, but tight ends are not, and you can convert them into fullbacks pretty easily. Our you can use a 6th lineman (al la Doug Legursky).

  • And that’s before you factor in the fact that the Steelers run, and run well, out of the two tight end set.

The Steelers have 7, 8 or 10 million dollars of salary cap space, depending on who you believe. That only seems like “a lot” because the Steelers have been in salary cap purgatory since 2012. Given how little space the team has, there’s no sense in tying more money up in Will Johnson than necessary.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Will Johnson

The case for tendering Will Johnson is stronger than for either of their other two restricted free agents. Unlike Robert Golden and Antwon Blake, Johnson is starter and an established, proven starter.

  • Should the Steelers leave Johnson unprotected, you certainly won’t see him signing a contract minutes after free agency beings.

But like Al Woods and Jerricho Cotchery in 2014, and Will Allen in 2013, Johnson could easily fall into the category of a free agent they want and expect to keep but can’t because someone else is simply willing and able to pay more. A minimum tender will give the Steelers the right of first refusal, and that could be enough to ward off potential suitors.

Ideally the Steelers would sign Johnson to a long term deal, but he’s one play you need to make sure comes back.

Thanks for joining us. Click here for more on the Steelers 2015 Free Agent Focus.

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