Diontae Johnson, on the surface, has the look of a player continuing to ascend, approaching the top tiers of the NFL receiver hierarchy. Rumors are he wants to be paid like it too. While I don’t put too much stock in offseason stories like this, it has led to an interesting discussion of how good Diontae Johnson really is.
Johnson was the Steelers first third round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, and the first player I did a post-draft film room on. He stood out with his releases and physical route running that was impressive for his size. He had quick success with the Steelers, finishing second on the team in receiving as a rookie, and first in targets. In 2020 with the return of Ben Roethlisberger he led the team in both targets and receiving yards, and in 2021 he led the team in targets, receptions, yards and touchdowns. Johnson also made his first Pro-Bowl as a replacement.
On the strength of that resume, it looks like Diontae Johnson is on his way to a big payday, especially with the way wide receiver contracts are going up this off-season. But should the Steelers lock up their young top receiver now, or risk him going into next season and ending up even more expensive?
To me, the answer is easy, the Steelers shouldn’t commit long-term to Johnson right now. And the reason is there are too many questions out there as to how good Diontae Johnson is going to be going forward.
The crux of this situation is the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger. Diontae Johnson and Ben Roethlisberger developed quick chemistry, leading to Diontae Johnson ranking 4th in targets over the last two years, behind only Stephon Diggs, Davante Adams and Cooper Kupp.
But again, Ben Roethlisberger is gone. And that leads us to the questions.
Will the volume continue?
We can’t just assume Mitchel Trubisky and Diontae Johnson are going to form the kind of chemistry Ben Roethlisberger and Diontae Johnson had. And if they don’t? then you don’t want to have a huge investment in a player that might not end up being the #1 receiver for your team. And the Steelers are likely going to be drafting a quarterback in the next few years, we don’t know how Diontae Johnson will do with whatever young quarterback the Steelers end up with. Diontae Johnson has good production with Mason Rudolph, but the Steelers aren’t putting their eggs in Rudolph’s basket he’s in a competition and he isn’t the favorite.
We also need to consider the offense is likely to change with Ben Roethlisberger exiting the huddle. Matt Canada was the offensive coordinator in 2021, but there was a lot of holdover from offenses that Roethlisberger was more comfortable in. How much the offense will change is yet to be seen, but with the investment in run blocking lineman I think the safe bet is we see a lot more focus on running the ball and an offense that isn’t going to be quick to drop the run and lean on the quarterback like it did in 2021.
With lower volume comes less productivity, which means the Steelers signing Johnson right now could very well be buying high on his production.
Can Johnson be a complete receiver?
I covered this in a previous article, but Diontae Johnson has been legitimately bad on passes thrown 15+ yards downfield.
I’m not going to restate the entire article, you can click the link above if you want to read it all, but Johnson’s catch rate plummets and he doesn’t offset that with big gains like other receivers do, and that leads to him being one of the worst deep pass receivers among higher volume receivers in the NFL.
You would be right to ask how much of that is on the quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his arm that was never the same again after surgery. But there are Steelers ahead of Johnson in deep pass efficiency the last two years. On passes Ben Roethlisberger threw 15+ yards downfield, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, James Washington and Eric Ebron all have better yards per target than Diontae Johnson. Those are also the only receivers with 10+ downfield targets. Which means of the 5 receivers Ben Roethlisberger targeted 10 or more times downfield, Diontae Johnson was the least efficient.
There is hope that Johnson can do better in the future. Mason Rudolph had much better results throwing downfield to Johnson, but that just raises the possibility that Johnson could improve, which means it is a question you would want an answer to before signing a big, long-term contract.
Is Diontae Johnson really a number one receiver?
If we put aside the above questions, there’s still reason to question if Diontae Johnson is truly a number one receiver, or if his production is inflated because of his target volume. Johnson was second in targets only to Cooper Kupp, but was 5th in receptions and 10th in receiving yards. That drop off is because Johnson’s yards per reception ranks 82nd, and his catch rate 140th among qualified targets.
But there’s more. Since 2019 there are 80 NFL players that have at least 7 games with 50+ receiving yards while posting a 10+ yards per target for that game. Basically, a productive and efficient game. 80 players is roughly 2.5 players per NFL team. Diontae Johnson isn’t one of them. He has 6. James Washington has 7, Chase Claypool has 8 games in that category. Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster both have 6.
Johnson had 3 of his 6 games in 2019, meaning while Chase Claypool had 8 productive and highly efficient games the last two seasons, Johnson had 3. Because another thing that shows up in stats is that Johnson is less efficient when he is targeted more.
In the 49 games Johnson has played in so far in his career, he has 21 games with 7 or fewer targets, and 28 with 8 or more targets. Even though he had 7 more games with higher volume of targets, he had more games with 8+ yards per target when he was targeted less than 8 times. Only 14% of the games Johnson was targeted 8+ times resulted in a yards per target of 8 or higher, but in 38% of the 21 games he was targeted less than 8 times he had a yards per target of 8 or higher.
Looking farther into it, Diontae Johnson’s best production and efficiency came in games when he was targeted 6 or 7 times. In those games he caught 39 of his 58 targets (67%) for 518 yards. That’s a yards per target of 8.93, which is really good. That’s almost prime Antonio Brown levels of efficiency. Compare that to his numbers in games with 10+ targets, which account for half of the games he’s played in the NFL. 184 receptions on 300 targets (61% catch rate) for 2097 yards. That’s a yards per target of 6.99, an almost 2 yards per target drop per target when he is a bigger focal point of the offense.
The evidence here raises a valid question, is Diontae Johnson a guy you can run a good offense through, or is he a high-end #2 receiver that got way too many targets in 2021? The Steelers offense hasn’t exactly thrived with Johnson as the number one receiver, and while there are numerous reasons for that, we don’t have an answer to this question yet.
It wouldn’t be prudent.
Diontae Johnson is a good receiver, and he may very well be worth a big contract. This article isn’t here to say Diontae Johnson isn’t worth a No. 1 receiver deal, just that there are enough questions about his ability to be that guy going forward that it would be wise for the Steelers to wait out the next season and let Diontae Johnson show them who he can be in Matt Canada’s offense with Ben Roethlisberger no longer throwing him the ball.
Until those questions are answered, it’s an unnecessary risk and the Steelers would be best off passing on committing to Johnson until he answers them.