Have you heard the phrase, “the devil you know is better than the one you don’t?” Sometimes, it’s better to make the best of a bad situation instead of hoping or expecting a change in a marginally better situation. That’s the case with many wide receivers this season throughout the NFL. It feels like half of the NFL either acquired a new quarterback to run the show or swung a big deal to flip a prominent wide receiver from one team to another. Diontae Johnson‘s situation falls in the former.
Team Offense Matters
Johnson reminds me a lot of Allen Robinson from a year ago. Remember when Andy Dalton and rookie Justin Fields were the best quarterbacks Robinson was going to play with? Mitchell Trubisky, ironically now teammates with Johnson, was hardly a world beater with the Bears, but he and Robinson definitely had a healthy connection. In 2019, Robinson finished No. 3 in the NFL with 154 targets amongst wide receivers. He finished as the No. 3 WR in targets again in 2020 with 151. In those years, Robinson’s target share was a robust 26.55-percent in 2019 and 24.59-percent in 2020. He finished as a top 12 receiver in fantasy both seasons.
Robinson was going to be Teflon for 2021, right? Well, as someone who drafted him everywhere last year, he wasn’t. He even secured a 24.49-percent target share in the five quarters plus he shared the field with Andy Dalton in Weeks 1 and 2. But wide receivers can only control so much. The supposed high-floor Robinson finished with just 68 points in half PPR scoring for all of 2021. He ended last season as the WR93.
Offensive System and Structure
Robinson serves as a reminder of how important offensive potency and structure are with wide receivers. The more a team is on the field, and the better they are at moving the ball, the more likely receivers score more touchdowns and fantasy points. That makes sense, right?
The High Potent Offenses
Last year, there were nine teams to finish in the top half of Football Outsiders’ pass DVOA metric and pass attempts. These teams were the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers, Buffalo Bills, Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Rams, Minnesota Vikings, and Green Bay Packers. Those teams accounted for 12 of the top 24 wide receivers in points per game last season (among those who played at least eight games) and eight of the top 12.
It’s easiest to crack the club that way, but it’s not the only way. Guys like Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins made it in, but the Bengals were in the middle of the pack in pass attempts despite their immense talent. Others like Diontae Johnson and Jaylen Waddle found their way in through massive volume. Can Johnson replicate that volume in 2022?
Noodle Arm Roethlisberger
That isn’t to say Diontae Johnson is a compiler; he’s been forced into it through horrific quarterback play. Ben Roethlisberger‘s noodle arm was shot for the last two seasons and forced Johnson into a dink and dunk option. With no capability to reliably push the ball deep, Roethlisberger kept feeding Johnson to keep the offense afloat. Johnson racked up 144 targets in 2020 which was No. 6 among receivers. This put Johnson’s target share at 21.95-percent.
Those numbers soared last season. Johnson’s 169 targets in 2021 were tied with Davante Adams and only trailed Cooper Kupp. His 28.5-percent target share and target rate ranked No. 4 and No. 10 among receivers according to playerprofiler.com. Johnson received a lot of targets due to his synergy with Roethlisberger’s, and Roethlisberger’s dusted arm, but they weren’t very quality targets. His 8.2-yard average depth of target ranked No. 76 among wide receivers.
Big Bad Bad Ben
Roethlisberger’s QB rating per target when he looked in Johnson’s direction was a paltry 96.8. That ranked No. 59 among receivers. His 5.32 target quality ranked finished No. 50 which is not much better.
Make no mistake about it: Johnson is a really good wide receiver too. His 1.89 yards of target separation last year ranked No. 10 among receivers. He added 502 yards after the catch, finishing No. 6 among receivers. Sure, he had plenty of short-yardage receptions to work off of, but he also boasted a 15.9-percent juke rate which accounts for broken tackles on a per reception basis. He made the best of a bad situation: a broken quarterback and a leaky offensive line holding back a star-studded group of playmakers.
Trubisky or Pickett?
The question heading into 2022 is how much has Johnson’s situation improved? The Steelers’ offensive line was bad in 2021 but ranks No. 30 in PFF’s grades heading into the season (Who is right behind them? The aforementioned Chicago Bears. Oof.). Fellow wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is gone, but some target competition is coming in the form of second-round rookie Georgia receiver George Pickens and fourth-round rookie Memphis speedster Calvin Austin III.
Big Ben Replacements
Roethlisberger is gone, but the Steelers brought in the aforementioned Mitchell Trubisky along with first-round draft pick Kenny Pickett. Trubisky is the front runner to start Week 1 but hasn’t gotten off to the strongest of starts in camp. At least we know he can sustain top-12 production from his alpha receiver, but we don’t know if his production with Johnson’s will be as fruitful as his and Robinson’s or Johnson and Roethlisberger’s. Johnson ending his ‘hold-in’ and signing a contract extension that guarantees him $27 million should help matters.
We also know that it is more likely than not we see Kenny Pickett at some point this season. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell noted in an article over a year ago that first-round rookie quarterbacks secure the starting spot at some point over their rookie seasons. Since 2011, 37 quarterbacks were drafted in the first round. 32 started consecutive games at some point during their rookie seasons and wrested control of the spot. The five that didn’t were either flameouts (Jake Locker and Paxton Lynch) or guys the team didn’t need to trot out amidst a playoff push with established and invested quarterbacks leading the way (Patrick Mahomes, Jordan Love, and Trey Lance).
We Know Mitch
Trubisky is neither of those things. We should expect to see Pickett at some point this season. It’ll be imperative to watch closely how he adjusts to NFL speed in the preseason for the sake of all Pittsburgh pass catchers, but especially Diontae Johnson.
Unlike Allen Robinson, who was a third-round pick at this time last year, Johnson is a late fourth-round pick currently on Underdog. I personally view him in the same tier among other wide receivers who received quarterback upgrades in 2022. This includes guys like D.J. Moore, Terry McLaurin, Michael Pittman, and A.J. Brown. If you want to include the aforementioned Robinson, Courtland Sutton, and/or Jaylen Waddle in there, you could easily make the argument for them.
This is not meant to be an article intended to sway you to fade Johnson. You shouldn’t fade good wide receivers. Wide receiver guru Matt Harmon, of Reception Perception and Yahoo! Sports, charted and revealed Diontae Johnson as a top two wide receiver vs zone coverage the last two seasons. Johnson also ranked in the 91st-percentile in success rate vs man coverage in 2021. If he slips, don’t hesitate to scoop him up; it’s hard to find 26-year-old receivers who have averaged 156.5 targets the last two seasons.
Johnson is the undisputed alpha and number one receiver on his team. However, he does have more questions that come with drafting him. These questions weren’t weighed properly (by me, at least) a year ago with Robinson. The ground shouldn’t collapse on Johnson the way it did on Robinson last season when everything fell apart in Chicago, but that’s impossible to predict. Johnson’s floor and ceiling might be a little lower than we think.