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Breaking down Diontae Johnson’s rookie season, Part 1: The Statistics

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Diontae Johnson had a really good rookie season. How good? Let’s look at the numbers.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Rob Leiter via Getty Images

Diontae Johnson was a surprise pick to most people on draft day. He wasn’t a standout at the combine or on anyone’s list of top receivers. Worse, he wasn’t being talked about as a potential steal, nor did he have any videos of him going viral in sports media. In a class with a lot of WRs receiving a lot of hype, that made him a nobody.

His film showed a lot of promise though, showing a similar style to Antonio Brown (an elusive, quicker-than-fast route runner with good catch radius) that probably fell off the radar because of the turmoil at QB he experienced in his senior season before injury set him back even further.

If you are interested in my views on Diontae Johnson’s college film, I did a three part fan post series on him in late May and early June of last year. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) If you read any of them you will be able to tell that his film impressed me a lot and I had high expectations for the young WR in his rookie season. Now that the season is over, we are going to take a look at how good of a season it was.


Diontae Johnson vs. his teammates

First up, the team receiving totals for 2019.

This chart shows normal stats as well as a metric of my own.

MVR: Compares receiver production to team production to help show what receivers were more important to their team, helps show good receivers on teams that don’t throw a lot. Formula: (Rec. Yards/Team pass attempts + Rec. TDs/Team passing TDs)
Impact: Compares yards gained per snap to team yards per snap, takes into account both time missed and percentage of run plays. Formula: (Rec. Yards/Off. Snaps/Team passing yards/Total team off. plays)

Diontae Johnson was the Steeler’s second leading receiver by yards and led the team in targets, receptions, and receiving TDs. He led Steeler WRs in snaps played (largely due to injuries from other players) as well as targets per snap played. If you go out to 4 decimal places Diontae Johnson is #1 in MVR as well.

While Diontae Johnson was #2 in receiving yards, if you look at each game, Johnson only led the Steelers in receiving 3 times, all in the last 4 weeks of the season. JuJu Smith-Schuster led the team 5 times, James Washington 5 times, Diontae Johnson 3 times, James Conner twice and Jaylen Samuels once.

Diontae Johnson was the #2 WR in the first half of the season, behind JuJu Smith-Schuster, and in the second half, was the #2 WR behind James Washington until the very end of the season when James Washington struggled and JuJu Smith-Schuster returned but was ineffective. The last quarter of the season Diontae Johnson would lead the Steelers in yards (100 more than James Wshington in second place) and in TDs (with 2 of the 3). Johnson’s 2.83 MVR for the last 4 games of the season are a pro-bowl level number, and that only takes into account the number of passes thrown and Johnson’s effectiveness. MVR2, which adjusts for the effectiveness of the passing game puts Johnson’s last 4 games of 2019 at a 3.46, a higher MVR than any NFL player had over the course of the 2019 season.

Don’t read too much into 4 games, but it points out just how good Diontae Johnson was in those 4 games compared to the rest of the Steelers passing game. Johnson was still producing, while the rest of the team wasn’t.

Diontae Johnson was never the #1 focus of the opposing team, and that allowed him to produce all season long as a reliable supporting piece.


Diontae Johnson vs. his draft class

Diontae Johnson was the 66th player drafted in 2019, the 10th WR. Johnson ended the season ranked 6th in receptions and 7th in TDs. When the Steelers offense is taken into account, he ranks even better.

Top rookie WRs from 2019.

Diontae Johnson ranks 5th in MVR among all rookie receivers, and in MVR2, which was designed to account for the exact kind of situation Diontae Johnson faced this season, when injuries to two QBs and the teams #1 WR greatly limited the effectiveness of the offense, ranks him 4th, behind the three rookie WRs that really broke out as rookies, A.J. Brown, Terry McLaurin and D.K. Metcalf.

Comparing an entire draft class is not easy, but one easure that is pretty good is Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value (AV). Diontae Johnson’s 2019 season earned a 6 AV, which ranks him in a tie with a bunch of other players that rank between 27th and 40th overall. One season is far too early to judge a career, but in his rookie season Diontae Johnson got off to a very good start, playing like a borderline first round player.


Diontae Johnson vs. history

While comparing rookies after one year is rightfully scorned as being too early to make a real judgement, look at the top rookie WR seasons over the last 5 years.

That’s every rookie WR that gained 600+ yards from 2015 to 2019. The first thing you should take away from it is that almost every single one of the receivers on that list is still producing for their team. The odds that Diontae Johnson won’t be a productive WR for at least several years are now incredibly low. there are a lot of very good supporting WRs on that list, and a good number of WRs who lead their team in receiving.

Another thing you should take away is how many of those WRs were on really good passing teams their first season. If you sort by Diff. (the change from MVR to MVR2) Diontae Johnson ranks third, showing how poorly his team’s offense compares to other offenses represented on the list.

Lastly, here’s the top Steeler Rookie WRs since the merger.

Diontae Johnson ranks among the best rookie seasons in team history. Interestingly, the truly great WRs in Steeler history all had really poor stats in their rookie season.


Conclusion

Diontae Johnson had a great rookie season, one that compares well against the better rookie seasons in recent NFL history and Steeler history. But while Johnson was a productive WR, and a highly productive WR when you consider the offense he was playing in, he was not the Steelers top receiving threat and was never the player the opposing team schemed to.

Looking historically Diontae Johnson’s production is a very good sign that he will be a productive receiver going forward, without really putting a ceiling on his potential.

From just looking at stats we get the impression of Diontae Johnson being a WR who will be productive in the NFL, but most likely as a #2 or a 1A type of receiver. In the other part of this review we will review his film for the season and look at his strengths, areas he needs to improve and his fit in the offense going forward.