Diontae Johnson was considered a Pro Bowl snub by many Steelers fans, at least until the Super Bowl participants were decided and Johnson was added to the Pro Bowl roster as a replacement. The third year receiver received that honor after his most prolific season, recording 107 receptions for 1,161 yards and 8 TDs. Not a shabby season at all.
However, when you look a little deeper at his stats, it’s fair to ask just how impressive his 2021 season was? Diontae Johnson was targeted 169 times in 2021, only Cooper Kupp was targeted more. Yet, while he ranked 2nd in targets, he ranked 10th in yards and tied for 16th in touchdowns. His catch rate of 63.3% was not impressive, ranking 138th out of all qualified players, and 30th out of the 49 wide receivers that caught at least 50 passes last season.
Making that catch rate number worse is his yards per reception, 10.9, which ranked 38th out of those same 49 receivers. That led to a 43rd place finish out of those 49 receivers in yards per target. Diontae Johnson’s efficiency as a receiver was not Pro Bowl level, he caught fewer of his targets for fewer yards than most of his peers. It’s pretty easy to argue the only special thing about his season was how much Ben Roethlisberger threw him the ball.
For comparison, consider Tyler Lockett of the Seattle Seahawks. Lockett gained 1,175 yards and scored 8 touchdowns in 2021, very close to the same numbers Diontae Johnson recorded. But Tyler Locket was targeted 107 times. Diontae Johnson gained 14 more yards on 58% more targets than Tyler Lockett. Tyler Lockett has never made the Pro Bowl as a receiver.
Seeing these numbers, and knowing the Steelers 2021 offense, I figured it was because the Steelers ran significantly shorter routes than other teams. So I looked it up, and found something I think is very interesting. Diontae Johnson’s average depth of target, completed or not, was 8.5 yards. That’s not particularly high, but right near his name I saw two other names that stood out. At an average depth of 8.6 yards was Cooper Kupp, and at 8.4 yards was Deebo Samuel. Cooper Kupp ranked 1st in total yards, and 8th in yards per target, while Deebo Samuel ranked 5th in total yards and 1st in yards per target. They were two of the three players selected as first team All-Pro in the NFL this season. Diontae Johnson wasn’t sabotaged by his depth of target, not when it was right with two of the top receivers in the NFL.
So why was their production so much higher than Johnson’s?
Deebo Samuel caught a similar percentage of his targets, catching 63.6% compared to Johnson’s 63.3%. Samuel’s main advantage over Johnson is his yards after the catch. Samuel averaged a ridiculous 10 yards after the catch while Diontae Johnson averaged 4.9 yards after the catch. This accounts for most of the difference between Samuel’s 18.2 yards per reception and Johnson’s 10.9 yards per reception.
In Cooper Kupp’s case, it is mostly his catch rate. While Johnson caught 63.3% of his targets, Kupp caught 75.9%. He averaged 2.5 yards more per catch as well, but that 12.6% increase in catch rate would have added 21 receptions to Diontae Johnson’s total catches, and if you calculate those catches at Johnson’s 2021 yards per reception you get 1,395 yards, a 234 yard increase in his actual numbers.
But there’s something much more concerning than Diontae Johnson not being as sure-handed or as electric after the catch as the top receivers in the NFL. Because while Diontae Johnson was even with two of the top receivers in the NFL in average depth of target, Johnson’s average depth of reception, or yards before the catch, was only 5.9, compared to 7.6 for Kupp, and 8.3 for Samuel.
It’s natural for the average depth of reception to be lower than the average depth of target, because catch rate is higher on shorter throws and lower on longer throws. But Diontae Johnson’s drop was much higher than other receivers. That’s the kind of numbers you expect from receivers who see a lot of low percentage deep throws, and it shows up in those receivers average depth of target. For example, Mike Evans saw a similar drop as Diontae Johnson, but Mike Evans’ average depth of target is 13 yards compared to Diontae Johnson’s 8.5.
To get a more functional number, let’s look at the difference between average depth of target and average depth of reception as a percentage. Mike Evans’ drop of 2.5 yards is 19.23% of his average depth of target, while Diontae Johnson’s 2.6 yard drop is 30.59% of his average depth of target. To compare, Kupp’s drop is only 11.63% of his average depth of target, and Samuel posted a ridiculously low 1.19% drop from his 8.4 yard average depth of target to his 8.3 average yards per reception.
Now let’s talk about why that is the case. Diontae Johnson was targeted 32 times on downfield throws, he caught 10 for 315 yards and 3 TDs. That 31.3% catch rate isn’t very good. It drags down his average depth of reception, and negatively effects his stats, but more importantly, it isn’t very helpful to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Chase Claypool caught 42.3% of his deep targets, Diontae Johnson was significantly worse than Claypool at catching downfield passes and even further behind Kupp (59%) and Samuel (60%), almost twice the rate at which Johnson caught deeper passes.
So, Diontae Johnson isn’t a deep threat, he isn’t as reliable as Cooper Kupp or as explosive as Deebo Samuel. He isn’t on the first team All-Pro short list. So who does he compare to statistically? What receivers are close to Diontae Johnson in their production and limitations?
Interestingly, two of the best comparable receivers in 2021 to Diontae Johnson in the stats we’ve been looking at are Marquise “Hollywood” Brown of the Baltimore Ravens and Jarvis Landry of the Cleveland Browns. In fact, Marquise Brown had a very similar season to Diontae Johnson in 2021.
M. Brown: 146 targets, 1,008 yards, 6 TDs, 62.3% catch rate, 11.1 yards per catch, 6.9 yards per target.
D. Johnson: 169 targets, 1,161 yards, 8 TDs, 63.3% catch rate, 10.9 yards per catch, 6.9 yards per target.
Brown had a higher average depth of target, but also had a bigger drop off to his average depth of reception with a 38.74% drop compared to Johnson’s 30.59%, but both were among the biggest in the NFL, with Brown ranking 3rd and Johnson 8th among wide receivers. They had similar yards after the catch too, with Brown at 4.3 and Johnson 4.9.
Marquise Brown is not a great receiver, and to this point in his career, Diontae Johnson hasn’t been great either. Good, but not great. Like Brown, Johnson has been the leading receiver on bad passing offenses. There are legitimate reasons to question whether he could be the primary receiver on a really good passing offense, or if his limitations would require him to be a really good No. 2 receiver on a better offense.
Right now I would put Diontae Johnson in that category of a great No. 2 receiver, but if he’s your No. 1 your offense isn’t going to be very good. But there is some hope. Johnson’s deep ball numbers were better with Mason Rudolph in Johnson’s rookie season of 2019. That gives some hope the team situation in 2020 and 2021 has made Johnson’s stats worse than they should be. While even an optimistic outlook on how much he could improve doesn’t put him anywhere close to the category of Samuel and Kupp, it leaves the door open to potential improvement if the offense around him improves.
I still don’t think that would make Johnson a No. 1 receiver who could lead a very good passing offense, but I could be wrong. What we do know is the Diontae Johnson we’ve seen through three seasons has flashed a lot of potential, but hasn’t delivered on it over time.
Hopefully that changes in 2022.