Similar to this year’s draft, one of the NFL’s worst-kept secrets in the 2008 draft was the Steelers’ desire to draft a running back in the first round. What is a surprise was the running back the Steelers almost, but ultimately did not select with the 23rd overall pick.
Chris Johnson, who bolstered his draft stock after running a 4.24 in the 40-yard dash at that year’s combine, had a pre-draft visit in Pittsburgh. Johnson wasn’t sure why he was visiting the Steelers, as they already had two-time Pro Bowler Willie Parker. But looking back, Johnson believes that Pittsburgh was seriously considering drafting him.
“Now that I go back and think about it, I think they were probably going to take me,” Johnson recently said on the “All Things Covered” podcast with Patrick Peterson and Bryant McFadden. “They took Mendenhall instead. They didn’t take me because I wouldn’t take the MRI on the visit.”
The Steelers instead selected former Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall with the 23rd pick. Johnson, following a stellar final season at East Carolina, was taken by the Titans with the next pick. Mendenhall played in just four games as a rookie before an injury prematurely ended his season. The Steelers won that year’s Super Bowl despite finishing 23rd in the league in rushing. Johnson won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors after rushing for 1,228 yards and nine touchdowns while helping lead the Titans to a 13-3 record. The following season, he became only the sixth player in league history to rush for more than 2,000 yards.
Going back to his pre-draft visit with Pittsburgh, Johnson said that the Steelers wanted to examine an injury he sustained in college. Johnson — who reluctantly underwent an MRI during the combine — explained to Mike Tomlin and the rest of the Steelers staff that he was claustrophobic and that the only way to get him to take an MRI was to “put me to sleep.” After roughly 20 minutes (during which Johnson called his agent to update him on the situation), Tomlin re-entered the meeting room.
“We really need you to take the MRI,” Johnson recalled Tomlin telling him, “but If you can’t take it, we’re going to have to send you home. We really can’t do business with you.”
The Steelers then sent Johnson home, a decision that he still thinks about.
“I was supposed to be a Steeler,” he said. “I get to Pittsburgh. They talked to me; I talked to all the coaches. Tomlin, they love me, this and that.”
Johnson would have been the ideal replacement for Parker, another speedy running back who was never the same after suffering a serious leg injury late in the 2007 season. McFadden, a member of both of the Steelers Super Bowl championship teams during the 2000s, feels that he and his teammates would have won even more hardware had Johnson been drafted by Pittsburgh.
“We felt like we would have won two more rings,” McFadden said. “If we had Chris Johnson, we definitely — worst-case scenario — would have gotten two more rings. Hands down.”
“It would have been crazy,” Johnson said when thinking about what would have happened had the Steelers drafted him. “I always felt some type of way about Pittsburgh because of that situation. I feel like it could have been handled differently. I can see if I was acting cocky. … They should have handled the situation differently.”
While they may have been better together, both the Steelers and Johnson enjoyed successful runs in the years after the 2008 draft. Pittsburgh appeared in two of the subsequent three Super Bowls and in 2013 selected the franchise’s next premier running back in Le’Veon Bell. Johnson would run for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first six seasons while becoming one of the league’s premier backs. McFadden tabbed Johnson as “one of the most feared and electrifying players to ever play the game.”
Johnson hopes that his career will one day be celebrated two hours west from Pittsburgh in Canton, Ohio, when he is eligible for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Johnson, who last played in 2017, will be eligible in 2023.
“I think I’m the best home run hitter ever in the history of the game,” said Johnson, whose seven runs for more than 75 yards are the most in league history. “I think I’m [a Hall of Famer], but I leave it up to [the voters]. They don’t like when players are cocky and try to name their stats when they’re trying to make the Hall of Fame … but sometimes you’ve got to speak up so they know.”