Diontae Johnson Fantasy
Diontae Johnson has been turning heads in minicamps and has even made the list as one of ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler’s surprise offseason standouts for the Steelers this offseason.
The Pittsburgh Steelers selected wide receiver Diontae Johnson in the 3rd round from Toledo which many viewed as a reach during the 2019 NFL Draft. But apparently, the Steelers felt they were getting a steal because they had a first-round grade on the receiver from the Mid-American Conference. Perhaps they think they may have found their Antonio Brown replacement in Johnson, who has drawn numerous comparisons to the newest Oakland Raider. They share traits like being quicker than fast and even have extremely comparable testing measurables. 4.53+ 40-yard dash times, height, and weight among others. But can Johnson become a featured fantasy asset to fill the hole left not only in the Pittsburgh offense but in our fantasy lineups? Let’s find out.
Steelers’ Offense in 2019
There is a very large target share up for grabs especially when it comes to touchdowns in Pittsburgh. According to John Paulsen of 4fo4.com on his article on vacated targets for 2019, the Steelers have 15 targets per game and 35.7% of their total targets vacated since last year. That is the fourth-highest of any team post-free agency. Johnson landing in Pittsburgh is great because there is a chance for opportunity, something all rookies do not always receive. Johnson’s main competitors for overall targets behind JuJu Smith-Schuster are going to be Donte Moncrief, James Washington, Vance McDonald, and Ryan Switzer.
Johnson’s role seems most likely to that of a receiver running underneath routes from the slot and outside. Smith-Schuster led the team in snaps from the slot (421) last season, followed by Switzer (175), Brown (139), and then McDonald (93). In college, in both 2017, Johnson played 22.5% of his snaps from the slot which increased to 30.5% in 2018 via Pro Football Focus. At his size, his first crack in the Steelers’ offense will most likely be in the slot. That area of the offense has been highly profitable in the Steelers’ offense especially last season. The Steelers were the only team that had three receivers rank in the top 39 in targets from the slot. So realistically, it will be more likely that Johnson is competing with Switzer for slot reps, with Washington and Moncrief competing for targets on the outside. The offense should stay pass-heavy so there will be passes to go around.
Pittsburgh as a team last season threw more (43.1 pass attempts/game), than any other team. Ben Roethlisberger also threw for a career-high 5,129 yards. This will probably come down in 2019, but even if it reverts back to 2017 (38.1 pass attempts/game), that is still just over 600 passing attempts and a top-six passing offense in terms of attempts based on last season. 4,500 passing yards is more realistic for 2019, but should still be more than enough to support another receiver outside of Smith-Schuster. 4,500 passing yards is a key number here as five teams last year saw their quarterback reach that threshold. And all of those teams produced at least a WR1/TE1 (KC, IND) or WR1/WR2 (ATL, PIT, LAR) combination.
Diontae Johnson Career College Stats
Why Diontae Johnson Could Succeed
No team gets more out of their wide receivers than Pittsburgh over the past several years. Johnson’s 2018 production lacked because the QB play was down, but with Roethlisberger still slinging it, there is a reason for excitement at the NFL level. The player is electric. This can be seen not only as a receiver but him in the return game. PFF ranked him as the 2nd overall highest return grade factoring in both kick and punt returns behind only Josh Jacobs. His punt return on average (18.5) was eighth highest in the FBS in 2018. Second highest in 2017 (25.5). But the key is to point out that he was an effective returner as a true freshman averaging 22.8 yards per return. In 2015, he had above 22.4 yards per return in eight games which tied for the fourth most in the FBS. He showed at an early age, that he was a viable asset in the return game. This has been shown to hold weight and be a transferable skill to the NFL. However, adversity followed up shortly after.
Though his breakout age is in the 42nd percentile, it’s important to note that in 2016 he missed the entire season due to injury. So it was not till 2017 when he finally was entrenched as a wide receiver in the Toledo offense when he finally broke out. Johnson’s 2017 was absolutely brilliant and could have been one of the first receivers taken in the draft had he declared last season. No other receiver had a higher rating when targeted by a quarterback (140.1) (100 targets) than Johnson did in the FBS. He was the second-highest graded wide receiver by Pro Football Focus in 2017. If Johnson is given the opportunity for targets and touches it will not be long for us to see his playmaking ability at the NFL level. But having the return ability will give Johnson the chance to showcase even while he fights to climb the depth chart.
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Why Diontae Johnson Could Fail
The biggest concern for Johnson will be lack of opportunity and playing time. Even as a third-round pick, he’s no guarantee to see playing time. Additionally, besides his decrease in production in 2018, the other concern for Johnson is how he will do facing bigger more physical defensive backs at the next level. He is much better when he gets a free release, rather than in press coverage.
Though there are many comparisons drawn to Brown, one trait Johnson does not have still his being a threat downfield like Brown became. It’s going to be more underneath routes for Johnson at least in his rookie season, so there might not enough for fantasy value with targets closer to the line of scrimmage.
Johnson is also a sub-par athlete that does not have great measurables. Via PlayerProfiler.com he has a 57th percentile 40-yard dash, 18th percentile speed score, 37th percentile burst score, and 16th percentile agility score. Johnson’ SPARQ-x score is also underwhelming in the 22nd percentile. If Johnson ends up not firing at the next level his below-level athleticism will definitely be a contributing factor.
Diontae Johnson Fantasy Forecast: My Take
It’s been a rollercoaster ride of emotions for Diontae Johnson. I was first turned onto him after watching Toledo for Pro Football Focus and he was everywhere on the field. So he was on my radar entering the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine, but that’s where he flopped from a measurables standpoint. In an earlier article titled 2019 NFL Combine Results – Complete Recap and Fantasy Insight, I said this in reference to Johnson:
Diontae Johnson from Toledo was a prospect I was very interested in targeting later in my drafts. I really liked him on tape, but at the combine, he did not do much to stand out. He’s considered a speed receiver, but from the drills, there were a number of guys who fit that profile better. Essentially he has fallen farther down in my pecking order of rookie wide receivers I’ll be targeting in fantasy rookie drafts.
All seemed lost for Johnson, but when Pittsburgh drafted him…👀, I had to take another look back. Year one, I think you need to temper expectations for Johnson. This is a crowded receiver room even after Brown’s departure. However, there is great long-term upside in a player that can be acquired for a third-round pick in rookie dynasty drafts. Also, don’t draft this guy in your redraft leagues. If he does end up producing in 2019, it will not be until later in the season.
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