Drop the Narrative and Buy the Dip on Diontae Johnson
October 3, 2021
Diontae Johnson is a player who has exceeded expectations throughout his first 2+ years in the NFL and elevated himself into becoming a darling across much of the dynasty community entering this season. Despite having a pedestrian athletic profile, an above-average-at-best college production resume, and a later breakout age than we'd ideally like to see, Diontae Johnson has done nothing but impress in the NFL (despite horrific quarterback play) due to his incredible route running and elite separation ability.
Through two games this season, Johnson has quietly picked up right where he left off last season by earning the 4th most targets in the league and delivering the production of a WR2 for fantasy, despite once again being on the receiving end of passes from a quarterback who should not be starting in the NFL. Diontae Johnson's talent once again supersedes his situation.
Now, entering week 3, Diontae Johnson is battling a minor injury and may miss this Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals. It's very possible that his dynasty managers are growing frustrated and currently under-appreciating his talent and situation-agnostic production, fearful that his situation might never improve, or both.
With a guest contribution from Matthew Ward (@PsychWardFF), we are here to tell you why you should drop the narratives around Diontae Johnson, take advantage of any managers who are showing weakness right now in dynasty, and buy the dip on an ascending talent with elite potential and upside.
Take it away Matt.
The rest of this article was written by guest contributor Matthew Ward. Follow him on twitter @PsychWardFF, on instagram @psychwardff, and you can find the rest of his written content on his Linktree here.
Listed at 5’10” and 183lbs, Diontae Johnson was pegged an underdog since entering the NFL. Johnson’s below-average size is the prototypical build of a field-stretching burner. Surprisingly, his athletic scores do not exactly jump off the page. Poor showings at his pro-day and NFL combine incited Johnson’s speed and agility scores to drop below the 20th percentile (via PlayerProfiler).
None of that was enough to deter the Steelers front office from selecting the former Toledo prospect in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. The Steelers organization has consistently developed overlooked talent at the receiver position into NFL stars. Johnson is no exception to that recurring trend.
Johnson is the perfect template for arguing film vs analytics. As far as this young wideout is concerned, pre-draft athletic scores do not equate to pro success.
Selected as the heir to the departing Antonio Brown, Johnson entered the locker room with high expectations. As a rookie, he was implemented as the primary ‘X’ receiver alongside target-hog and slot receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. It would not take long for Johnson to eat into Juju’s top five target total.
Johnson received 92 targets as a rookie on an injury-depleted Steelers team. Catching passes from Delvin “Duck” Hodges, and Mason Rudolph was less than ideal for the rookie's development. Johnson finished 115th in true target value (TTaV) with a 2.19 target rating, as recorded by BRotofantasy.com. Despite the inept passing metrics, Johnson finished 57th in points per game (PPG) amongst wideouts. Outperforming target value by 58 ranks in PPG is astounding at any juncture of a receiver's career, let alone as a rookie.
With Juju and Roethlisberger sidelined, Johnson developed a trust from the coaching staff that would have a lasting ripple effect on the offensive scheme for years to come.
As a sophomore, Johnson made significant leaps in volume and production. Johnson would finish his second NFL season ranked 6th in targets(144), 13th in receptions(88), 25th in receiving yards(923), 15th in yards after the catch (357), and 18th in total touchdowns for receivers (7). Johnson finished as WR22 in fantasy points per game with 14.8 and solidified himself as Roethlisberger’s go-to option with his team-leading target total.
Amidst Johnson's meteoric sophomore rise, an outlying statistic gave birth to an infamous narrative.
A Narrative to Drop
Fantasy football pundits attempted to downplay Johnson’s ascent. Leading the league with 11 drops in 2020, there was considerable worry he could not remain an efficient option as the Steelers alpha receiver. The nature of a 52 target volume increase from one year to the next often leads to reduced efficiency for even the league's best receivers. Only one other non-rookie wide receiver cracked the top five in total drops last season: Stefon Diggs. The point being, drops are not conducive to fantasy production. Unless Johnson sees a monumental decrease in opportunity share, the drops are an empty statistic.
It is hard to see this narrative as anything but an outlier in Johnson’s career trajectory. He showed no signs of issues with drops during his rookie campaign. Of the 92 targets Johnson received as a rookie, he recorded a drop only three times. His drop rate that season ranked 79th amongst eligible receivers at a 3.3% clip. Johnson also posted a top 16 catch rate in 2020 at 88.1%. As I previously mentioned, Johnson achieved this uber-efficient rate with a staggering 115th ranked TTaV.
If early season progress is any indication, Johnson seems to have put all worries about securing the ball behind him. Through two games of 2021, Johnson ranks second in targets with 22. He has 14 receptions in those two games despite missing time in both. Notably, Johnson did not record a single drop in either of those two games (per PFF).
Even if you anticipate negative regression from Johnson’s 14:1 reception to drop ratio, his role remains respected.
Johnson has absolved himself of most inefficiencies with one undeniable constant: He is always open.
Route to Success
Johnson creates separation against defenders like a divorcee with a restraining order. Even during the budding development of his rookie season, he excelled at all facets of route running. He led the league in target separation in 2019 with an average separation of 2.39 yards (via PlayerProfiler). Johnson exhibits flawless technique in his timing and route fakes rather than relying on raw athleticism.
In 2019 Johnson finished above the 80th percentile in success rates against all coverages, as charted by Matt Harmon at Reception Perception. This puts Johnson in a historically elite tier of rookie wide receivers.
Deemed a short route specialist, Johnson has earned a reputation for working close to the line of scrimmage while racking up yards after the catch. His route tree tells a different story of dominance. Johnson posted above-average success rates on 8/10 routes in the Reception Perception route tree in his inaugural NFL season. Unfortunately for opposing defenders, he continued to improve in his sophomore season.
Often drawing the shadow of the opponent's top defensive back, Johnson faced man coverage on 57.9% of routes run in 2020. Recording a 77.7% success was enough to enshrine Johnson in the 95th percentile of Reception Perception's illustrious database. Johnson mirrored that success against zone and press coverages as well with 96th and 86th percentile ratings in both categories.
Johnson has quieted all previous perceptions surrounding his athletic ability. Few receivers have found this level of success at such an early stage in their NFL careers. Somehow, Johnson is still undervalued.
Cost of Acquisition
Usually, an asset acquisition of Johnson’s talent and proven success would come with a franchise-altering price tag for dynasty managers. Consensus trade value gathered from Dynasty League Football, PlayerProfiler, and KeepTradeCut have Johnson’s cost equivalent to a mid-high 2022 first-round draft pick.
Active players involved in successful matching offers on these sites include Matt Ryan, Kirk Cousins, Miles Sanders, Jaylen Waddle, and Mike Evans.
At 25 years of age, in his third NFL season, Johnson presents a unique blend of dynasty value. Whether you are breaking your roster down for future re-modelling or in a window to compete for the league title, Johnson is a player that fits the bill for all bids.
The future of the Steelers franchise poses a playground of unknown. Roethlisberger has seen his production decline across the board over the past two seasons. An end to an accomplished career is imminent for the Steelers legend.
The waters do not become any clearer when analyzing the future contracts of the Steelers young receiving corps. Diontae Johnson’s rookie contract has him signed through 2022. With no fifth-year option attached, Johnson would hit the free-agent market in 2023.
A long-term commitment has yet to be offered to Johnson’s pass-catching counterpart. Juju re-signed with the Steelers on a one-year contract this offseason. Set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2022, his future with the organization is anything but guaranteed.
With the franchise in “win-now” mode, it is hard to project the Steelers having a top draft pick in 2022. This leaves the team in a peculiar position when attempting to fill their future need at quarterback. JuJu and Johnson’s careers with the team may already be written between the lines. If the Steelers are unable to find a method to select Roethlisberger's replacement in the draft, they will need to keep a hefty amount of their salary cap free for free-agent signings.
Regardless of who he is catching passes from, or what team he plays for, Diontae Johnson has the future potential and proven track record to be a league winner in all formats for several years.
Big thank you to Matthew Ward for spending the time diving deep on Diontae Johnson and contributing this Player Profile to RotoGods. Once again, if you enjoyed this read, then give Matthew a follow on twitter @PsychWardFF, on instagram @psychwardff, and find the rest of his written content on his Linktree here.
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