• Matt Nein

Diontae Johnson: Diamond In The Rough

Twitter: @mnein9

People close to me know that I am a huge fan of Diontae Johnson. In fact, I might be an irrationally huge fan of Diontae. For only having one year of NFL experience and not even being the number one target on his team (or is he…?), I believe Diontae Johnson is being dismissed too quickly and could provide significant value to your fantasy team for the 2020 season and beyond.


Who is Diontae Johnson?

First, we have to go back to Johnson’s college days at Toledo. During his time playing for Toledo, Johnson was able to amass a career stat line of 135 receptions, 2235 yards (16.6 AVG), and 23 receiving TDs in 39 career games. Johnson also had over 2000 return yards, 1 KR TD, and 1 PR TD. In 2017 Johnson put his name on the map with an incredible breakout year. DJ set the school’s all-time single-season receiving yards record (1278) and came in third for the school’s all-time single-season in receiving TDs (13). He also led the nation in yards per punt return average in 2017 & 2018 (19.9). Considering the quality of QB he was playing with in college, these kinds of numbers are no less than prolific.


2019 NFL Draft

Leading up to the draft, many analysts and NFL coaches fell in love with Johnson because of his excellent route running ability and his explosiveness. Johnson’s ability to separate with his quick efficient feet, mixed with his speed, and his ability to change direction in the blink of an eye, led to his consistency in college of being able to get open.

Johnson was selected 66th overall (the Steelers had a first-round grade on him) by the Steelers which coincidently was the pick the Steelers got back from Oakland in the Antonio Brown trade. [As most of us know, the majority of NFL talent comes on day 2 picks (2nd and 3rd rounds).]

(Gerry Dulac covers the Steelers writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as well as a Steelers Radio Network Host)

After the pick was made, the NFL world immediately began to take notice. Some would have considered the pick a surprise but not Tampa Bay head coach, Bruce Arians. The Steeler's late WRs coach Darryl Drake on selecting Diontae Johnson, “I know for a fact that Tampa Bay was going to take him with their next pick. I got cussed out by Tampa Bay’s head coach who called us some names for taking him. That was his guy.”

Tampa Bay traded out of their 3rd round selection 4 picks later. In addition to NFL coaches and GMs being aware of Johnson’s talent, Louis Riddick of ESPN claimed that Johnson is “the best route runner in this Draft.”


2019 Rookie Season

DJ’s rookie season was fantastic given the unfortunate circumstances the Steelers faced at the QB position. Big Ben was injured early on in week 2 and the remainder of the season it was a revolving door of Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges. This didn’t seem to faze DJ in the slightest because as I mentioned before, he didn’t exactly have top-tier QB talent at Toledo.

DJ finished his rookie year as so:

(Photo Credit: Pro Football Reference)

DJ only started 12 games and lead ALL rookie WRs in receptions.

  • Diontae Johnson – 59

  • Terry McLaurin – 58

  • DK Metcalf – 58

  • Deebo Samuel – 57

  • AJ Brown – 52

  • Darius Slayton – 48

DJ should have had a much bigger year than what the numbers suggest. After spending several days watching all the DJ tape I could, there were so many bad passes thrown his way. Whether it was an overthrow, underthrow, or the wrong read, DJ was not able to run a full route tree and succeed on every level of the field. How bad were Rudolph and Hodges last year though? Rudolph posted the worst QBR in the league at 34.4 while Hodges posted a QBR of 26 (I had to do the math myself on Hodges because he didn’t even qualify.). As I mentioned before, DJ’s biggest strength is route running, so the fact he wasn’t able to run a full route tree and still put up the numbers he did… imagine what a HOF QB in Big Ben could do for him.

DJ lead the Steelers in target share % his rookie season.

  • Diontae Johnson – 18.9% (15.2% RZ)

  • JuJu Smith Schuster – 18.3% (21.1% RZ)

  • James Washington – 16.9% (4.7% RZ)

When targeting DJ last year, the Steelers QB/s had a passer rating of 95 which led all Pitt WRs.

DJ lead the NFL in target separation per route run at 2.39.

(This stat can be somewhat misleading because it does not take into account if the corner is playing press-man coverage or zone. However, it is noteworthy none the less and the tape seems to agree.)

In this clip, DJ runs a 13 yard out route against CB Xavier Howard. The Dolphins are playing man coverage on this play and at the top of the route, DJ makes a quick hesitation move to get open allowing Rudolph a much bigger window to throw in to.

In this clip DJ puts arguably the best corner in the league (Tre White) on skates, makes a defender miss, and then stiff arm’s the **** out of White.


Looking Ahead To The 2020 Season & Beyond

The Steelers drafted DJ to help replace the loss of Antonio Brown. I think DJ can do exactly that.

I DO NOT THINK DIONTAE JOHNSON IS ANTONIO BROWN. AB is a certified Hall of Famer and one of the best WRs the league has ever seen. However, I do think though the Steelers are going to force-feed DJ into the ‘AB Role’.

First, let's take a look at the players from a physical standpoint. (Combine Measurements)


The Tape

I think the Steelers saw a lot of qualities in DJ that they had in AB. See for yourself.

Back shoulder fade….check.

High pointing the football….check.

Ability to make defenders miss in the open field….check.

Elite route running….check.

Screen pass……check.

Same TD celebration…..check.

[These videos I got from @DonnieDruin who covers the Steelers for Sports Illustrated and is a featured writer for @FantasyPros. Highly recommend you follow this guy for top-quality Steelers coverage.]

Now, let's see how each player's rookie years compared.

(Johnson) – 16 Games -- 12 Games Started -- 92 TGT -- 59 REC -- 680 YDS -- 11.5 Y/R -- 5 TD

(Brown) – 9 Games -- 0 Started -- 19 TGT -- 16 REC -- 167 YDS -- 10.4 Y/R -- 0 TD

Johnson is already off to a major head start in his career than AB was.

(Again, DJ didn’t have Big Ben.)

Finally, let's talk about their roles.

During ABs time in Pittsburgh, he mainly played the X receiver role. AB played off the line of scrimmage and moved around the field a lot. Like AB, one of Johnson’s biggest strengths is getting the ball in space. This chart shows the similarities of the direction the targets were thrown and the directional target share %. (ABs final year in Pitt and DJs rookie year.)

(Photo Credit: Sharp Football Stats)

Looking at this you can clearly see they were moving DJ around in the same direction they moved AB and targeting him in the same parts of the field as they did AB. I don’t think it is crazy to think that DJ gets 110 - 125 targets with a target share of 20-22% in 2020. The return of Big Ben will have a dramatic impact on DJs numbers. The quality of targets thrown to him as well as being able to run a full route tree. AB has also been working out with DJ this offseason teaching him the nuances of the Steelers playbook. Maybe a passing of the torch…

Looking ahead to the 2021 season and beyond, rumors have already begun to emerge stating that the Steelers have no intention of resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster which could open the door even more for DJ to be the definitive WR1 for the Steelers. The Steelers also drafted Chase Claypool in the second round of the NFL Draft in April. Claypool is 6’4’’ 238lbs and runs a 4.42 40 yard dash. With significant draft capital invested in WRs over the last two drafts for the Steelers, there is a very real chance they don’t want to spend big money on JuJu. Big Ben is also coming to the end of his career and maybe the Steelers want to save money as they potentially enter a mini rebuild. Even if JuJu stays though, DJ will still be a top 2 option on this offense for the foreseeable future. Opportunity is king in fantasy football and DJ will be getting a lot of it.

According to DLF, DJ is currently being drafted as WR47 (May 2020 ADP) which is a back-end WR4 borderline WR5. Considering he has the opportunity to be a WR2 this year and the potential for more moving forward, there will be no cheaper time to acquire him than right now.