2023 Fantasy Football: Devonta Smith vs Diontae Johnson | Studs and Duds

by Emerson Beery · Studs and Duds

Studs and Duds: Devonta Smith and Diontae Johnson

PlayerProfiler is back with another studs and duds series with two wide receivers that ended up with vastly different fantasy football seasons in 2023. Both Devonta Smith and Diontae Johnson are skilled route runners who are dynamic with the ball in their hands.

They are both smaller receivers as well who have had a lot of fantasy football success in the past. While they have all of these similarities it was their offensive surroundings that shaped their fantasy football success in 2022.

Stud: Devonta Smith

After a successful rookie season, Devonta Smith took his game to the next level in 2022. He accumulated 1,196 yards and seven touchdowns on his way to a WR9 PPR finish. Smith is the complete package putting together a rare combination of athleticism, route running, and ball skills. A higher target share in his sophomore season contributed to his fantasy success, but better-quality targets were a part of that too.

Devonta Smith Advanced Stats & Metrics Profile

As a rookie, Smith ranked No. 10 in unrealized air yards and was No. 45 among receivers in catchable target rate. This past season though those numbers improved dramatically. He was No. 21 in unrealized air yards and incredibly 90.4-percent of the passes thrown his way were catchable. Smith’s efficiency numbers were remarkably similar in both seasons. The difference was Jalen Hurts took a big step forward as a passer in 2023.

When Did You Know He Was One of Your Guys?

My admiration of Devonta Smith dates back to his time as a college player at Alabama. After leaping onto the scene as a junior with 1,256 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns, Smith likely could have been a first-round pick. Instead, he returned to school to produce one of the best collegiate wide receiver seasons ever.

On his way to winning the Heisman trophy, he accumulated 1,856 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns on a monster 34.6-percent target share. Fantasy managers are normally wary of senior prospects, but Smith was an obvious exception. His 51.3-percent College Dominator Rating ranked in the 97th-percentile for receivers, showing just how much the Alabama offense depended on him.

Why Did You Like Him So Much?

Other than elite size and top-end speed, Devonta Smith was a complete wide-receiver prospect. Due to his superior route running, college cornerbacks simply couldn’t stick with him for long downfield. Smith also has strong hands and is a fluid route runner who easily comes in and out of breaks. He was also extremely versatile at Alabama being able to play inside or outside and found success at all three levels of the field.

What Did You Learn?

Wide receivers don’t necessarily have to be tall, incredible athletes to succeed in today’s NFL. Smith has a very slight frame at just 6-0 and 170 pounds and wasn’t overly athletic for someone his size at the NFL Combine. Yet he already has a top-10 WR fantasy finish under his belt in the most run-heavy offense in the NFL.

Compare him to someone like D.K. Metcalf who is 6-3 and was one of the most athletic receivers to ever test at the NFL Combine. Yet he only has one top-10 WR fantasy finish in his four-year career.

Devonta Smith Advanced Stats & Metrics Profile

While Metcalf did have to share targets with Tyler Lockett throughout that time, Smith was able to still find success with A.J. Brown. Below shows Smith was ranked higher in yards after the catch, target separation, yards per catch, and Juke Rate in 2023 as well.

DK Metcalf Advanced Stats & Metrics Profile

The NFL has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. NFL teams and quarterbacks have more unique ways of creating offense than simply putting big bodies in contested catch situations over the middle of the field. Fantasy managers now have a much broader view of who can be a productive fantasy receiver in the NFL.

Where Would You be Willing to Draft Him in 2023?

Devonta Smith will have success in the NFL for a long time. Nonetheless, he is my WR15 in my 2023 fantasy football rankings and I’m not expecting him to repeat as a WR1. The Eagles will continue to be one of the most run-heavy offenses in the NFL, and he still has to contend with Brown and Dallas Goedert for targets.

Hurts did improve dramatically as a passer in 2022, but it would be a stretch to ask him to produce multiple top-12 wide receivers again. With AJ Brown cemented as the top target in the offense, Smith could be subject to some boom and bust performances. This was the case last year too because he did have seven performances outside the top 24 fantasy receivers.

Dud: Diontae Johnson

Diontae Johnson was a fantasy football bust in 2023, however he suffered through some extreme statistical outliers as well. He was the WR30 in PPR leagues despite finishing 6th in targets in the entire NFL. His 147 targets without a touchdown reception is an NFL record by a wide margin with the next closest player having 109 (Michael Timpson).

Despite these opportunities, Johnson struggled to get on the same page as Kenny Pickett. This was evident by his No. 2 ranking in unrealized air yards and 0.32 fantasy points per route run (No. 62). There were a number of plays too where Johnson was just out of bounds, or there was a big play called back due to a penalty. Ultimately, Johnson suffered some horrible luck last season, and I expect him to bounce back in 2023.

When Did You Know He Was One of Your Guys?

While I fell in love with Smith in college, that wasn’t the case with Johnson. His small size and relatively poor NFL Combine testing had me move him down my pre-draft rankings. He had issues with drops as well which has continued in the NFL.

Nonetheless, he stood out his rookie season when Juju Smith-Schuster and James Washington were the incumbents. He ranked No. 2 in target separation too which cemented him as my favorite Steelers’ receiver going into the following season. That proved to be the case as he’s led Pittsburgh in targets each of the last three seasons.

Why Did You Like Him So Much?

Great players earn targets, and Johnson has done that his entire career. He ranks No. 5 in the entire NFL over the last three years and has done so with consistently strong wide receiver competition. Even when he was a rookie with Mason Rudolph the starter most of the year he managed to lead James Washington and Juju Smith-Schuster in targets.

Top-5 NFL Target Leaders (2020-2022) Courtesy of StatMuse

Despite not being a great athlete, Johnson is dynamic with the ball in his hands as well finishing top 15 in yards after the catch in 2020 and 2021. He may lack top-end speed but has quick twitch movements that make him hard to tackle.

What Did You Learn?

If fantasy managers are looking for a tiebreaker between players early on in drafts, pick the player in the better offense. The Steelers were bottom 10 in total offense in 2023. The nine teams lower than Pittsburg only produced four top-24 fantasy wide receivers combined. More plays and touchdown opportunities are ultimately huge for a player’s success. Those in poor offenses should be cautiously approached in fantasy football drafts as a result.

Where Would You Be Comfortable Drafting Him in 2023?

Underdog Fantasy Football is far superior to mock drafts this time of year in generating accurate ADP. In their early best ball tournaments. Johnson is going as a low-end WR3 at a massive value. Even if his targets drop because of George Pickens, a positive touchdown and catch rate regression should more than make up for it.

Pickens didn’t look on the cusp of seizing the WR1 role in the Pittsburg offense last season either. He had a 15.6-percent target share on the year and had a 33.3-percent (No. 91) route run win rate. Pickens excels as a deep threat, but Johnson should still operate as the chain mover.

George Pickens Advanced Stats & Metrics Profile

As a result, I would be willing to draft Johnson as high as WR22 in 2023 fantasy football leagues. The ceiling is limited in a Kenny Pickett and Matt Canada offense, but his current ranking is far too low for someone who will receive that amount of targets. Johnson is not a stud, however, he is certainly not a dud in 2023.