• Matt Nein

Diontae Johnson: Diamond In The Rough

Matt Nein / @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 Dionate. 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 kind 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 of considered the pick a surprise but not Tampa Bay head coach, Bruce Arians. The Steelers 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.

Dionate 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 lets 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, lets see how each players 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