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Why the narrative surrounding Diontae Johnson’s drops is overblown

Diontae Johnson has the reputation of being the receiver who drops the ball the most. But what if that narrative was totally false?

Denver Broncos v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

In last week’s episode of the Steelers Stat Geek podcast, I answered the question about which wide receivers the Steelers should keep versus those which they should move on from for next season. In breaking down the Steelers top five receivers, I looked at receptions, targets, yards, touchdowns, and drops over the last two seasons. Even after looking at all the positive aspects of everything the players brought to the table, it seemed as if the drops are one statistic in which many Steelers fans focus on more than others.

Over the last two seasons, the Steelers have had the same top five receivers as well as the same coach. For this reason, most of the data is easy to compare. One exception is time lost due to injury by JuJu Smith-Schuster and the subsequent snaps and targets transferred to Ray-Ray McCloud. But has any one receiver had more drops than others? Has any receiver stood out as being more sure-handed?

First and foremost, fans must remember drops are not an official NFL statistic. There are a number of statistics that are also not official, such as tackles, which are recorded during the game as part of what is reported each week. But for drops, the only way they are reported is by some statistical outlets judging the plays for themselves and tallying them as part of their own stats. Sometimes these outlets agree, and sometimes they don’t. While individual plays might go as a drop for one statistician and not for another, when the totals come out often times they are greatly different. So, when it comes to looking at drops, the source is an important part of the equation which needs expressed.

When it comes to looking at the statistics for dropped passes, I stick with my most reliable source for statistics of Pro Football Reference (PFR). PFR keeps very accurate statistics which often lineup with exactly those reported as official by the NFL. Some places prefer to use the dropped pass statistics by Pro Football Focus (PFF), but PFF has very questionable statistics across the board. Unless I can’t find them otherwise, I don’t trust PFF to keep accurate statistics. For example, when looking at the sack leaders on the Steelers this past season, a statistic officially kept by the NFL, they do not have the correct totals for the first four players on the list. On top of that, they don’t even have them in the correct order (Chris Wormley officially had more sacks than Alex Highsmith, but PFF has them in the other order). I felt it was important to let everyone know the source I was using for statistics, and the reasons behind the choice, in case there was any question about differences.

Here are the drops statistics for each of the last two seasons and total for both years for the Steelers’ top five wide receivers. It should be noted that drop percentage is calculated by taking the number of drops divided by the number of targets. These statistics are from regular season games.

Diontae Johnson

2021
Games: 16
Targets: 169
Receptions: 107
Yards: 1,161
Touchdowns: 8
Drops: 5
Drop Percentage: 3.0%

2020
Games: 15
Targets: 144
Receptions: 88
Yards: 923
Touchdowns: 7
Drops: 13
Drop Percentage: 9.0%

Two-year Totals
Games: 31
Targets: 313
Receptions: 195
Yards: 2,084
Touchdowns: 15
Drops: 18
Drop Percentage: 5.8%


Chase Claypool

2021
Games: 15
Targets: 105
Receptions: 59
Yards: 860
Touchdowns: 2
Drops: 5
Drop Percentage: 4.8%

2020
Games: 16
Targets: 109
Receptions: 62
Yards: 873
Touchdowns: 9
Drops: 6
Drop Percentage: 5.5%

Two-year Totals
Games: 31
Targets: 214
Receptions: 121
Yards: 1,733
Touchdowns: 11
Drops: 11
Drop Percentage: 5.1%


JuJu Smith-Schuster

2021
Games: 5
Targets: 28
Receptions: 15
Yards: 129
Touchdowns: 0
Drops: 0
Drop Percentage: 0.0%

2020
Games: 16
Targets: 128
Receptions: 97
Yards: 831
Touchdowns: 9
Drops: 3
Drop Percentage: 2.3%

Two-year Totals
Games: 21
Targets: 156
Receptions: 112
Yards: 960
Touchdowns: 9
Drops: 3
Drop Percentage: 1.9%


James Washington

2021
Games: 15
Targets: 44
Receptions: 24
Yards: 285
Touchdowns: 2
Drops: 2
Drop Percentage: 4.5%

2020
Games: 16
Targets: 56
Receptions: 30
Yards: 392
Touchdowns: 5
Drops: 4
Drop Percentage: 7.1%

Two-year Totals
Games: 31
Targets: 100
Receptions: 54
Yards: 677
Touchdowns: 7
Drops: 6
Drop Percentage: 6.0%


Ray-Ray McCloud

2021
Games: 16
Targets: 66
Receptions: 39
Yards: 277
Touchdowns: 0
Drops: 6
Drop Percentage: 9.1%

2020
Games: 16
Targets: 22
Receptions: 20
Yards: 77
Touchdowns: 0
Drops: 0
Drop Percentage: 0.0%

Two-year Totals
Games: 32
Targets: 88
Receptions: 59
Yards: 354
Touchdowns: 0
Drops: 6
Drop Percentage: 6.8%

In looking at these percentages, one thing which stands out the most is how improved Diontae Johnson was in 2021. Unfortunately, Steelers fans forget this because Johnson‘s drops came mostly over the final two games of the season and added to that total in the playoffs. But based on the numbers from the season before, it was something he worked on going into the season and made strides in the right direction. The only one of the top five wide receivers that had a better drop percentage in 2021 was JuJu Smith-Schuster.

While some believe James Washington may be the most sure-handed receiver, the numbers do not show this to be the case. While his number of drops are not terrible, they are based on a much smaller sample of targets and therefore a higher drop percentage.

JuJu Smith Schuster appears to have the best overall numbers when it comes to drops, but they were in his fourth and fifth seasons in the NFL. PFR did not begin keeping advanced statistics such as drops until 2018, so Smith-Schuster‘s rookie season cannot be included. But according to PFR, Smith-Schuster saw a decrease in his number of drops each season since 2018, although he did have a high drop percentage in 2019, due to his small number of targets.

So these are the numbers behind the Steelers wide receivers and their drop numbers as recorded by Pro Football Reference. Do they accurately depict what fans expected the numbers to be? Was this an issue more over the last two seasons based on the coach or on the players? Make sure you leave your thoughts in the comments below.

In case you missed last week’s Steelers Stat Geek podcast, check it out below: