Steelers Fullbacks in Flux? Will Roosevelt Nix Cost Johnson His Roster Sport?

The Pittsburgh Steelers might have more difficult and more interesting free agent decisions to make in 2016, but none lends itself to such a catchy, if a bit corny, headline. All jesting aside, the “quandary” is real for Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin.

This time a year ago it looked like a major injury was all that separated fullback Will Johnson from a his first full-fledged second contract. The emergence of Roosevelt Nix however changes things. Or does it. Let’s find out….?

Capsule Profile of Will Johnson’s Career with the Steelers

In the spring of 2012 Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert took a road trip south to attend West Virginia University’s pro day. If memory serves, they were going to scout another player. But a hybrid tight end, running back, and wide out who’d played for four years for the Mountaineers for four years but sat out 2011 without as much as an invite to an NFL training camp caught their eyes.

  • The Steelers brought him to Pittsburgh as an undrafted rookie free agent to play fullback.

One of Todd Haley’s first moves as Steelers offensive coordinator was to officially restore the fullback to the Steelers offense, and he tapped David Johnson to make the transition to full time fullback. Johnson unfortunately go injured in preseason; fortunately Will Johnson had impressed the coaches, and started at fullback in his place.

As a fullback Johnson doesn’t have a very long stat sheet, although he’s generally been a reliable target on the few times that Ben Roethlisberger (or Charlie Batch, Michael Vick, or Landry Jones) has chosen to throw a pass his way. He’s also rushed 8 times for 14 yards. That’s not terribly impressive, but the sample size is quite small….

A year ago the Steelers offered Johnson a restricted free agent tender, and he was back with the team in 2015, working both at fullback and at tight end.

The Case for Steelers Keeping Will Johnson

Perhaps Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell said it the best when he declared:

An easy call for me. I bring Johnson back with a cheap two or three-year contract. Versatile, smart and plays a position that’s looking at age issues.

And that was before Heath Miller retired. The fullback position is getting harder and harder to staff, and Johnson’s experience at tight end is a definitive plus.

The Case Against Steelers Keeping Will Johnson

The argument for keeping Will Johnson can be summed up, as the headline implies, it two words: Roosevelt Nix.

Like Johnson, Nix joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent, and during the course of the season Nix showed himself to be a capable play maker on special teams, and he performed quite well as a fullback.

  • The argument flows accordingly: Fewer and fewer NFL teams carry one fullback, how can the Steelers justify carrying two?

Roosevelt Nix can do what Will Johnson can do, but at a far lower salary cap value, and the Steelers do not have salary cap space to spare.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Will Johnson

What’s implicit in Wexell’s argument is that Will Johnson return as a tight end. In that light, Heath Miller’s retirement could be a game changer. Matt Spaeth is aging and Jesse James showed flashes but has yet to prove consistency.

  • Will Johnson isn’t going to command a lot of attention or money on the free agent market either as a tight end or as a fullback.

If the Steelers can sign Will Johnson to a cost effective contract, he could provide valuable depth at tight end while Roosevelt Nix installs himself as a full time fullback.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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