Diontae Johnson’s 2021 Fantasy Football Outlook

Over the last couple of months, fellow Steelers Depot contributor Wesley Cantliffe and myself have been discussing the fantasy value of several players heading into the 2021 season, more specifically the Pittsburgh Steelers options to choose from in fantasy football drafts. One player that has been a hot topic of this conversations is Diontae Johnson, who is heading into his third season with Pittsburgh. Cantliffe has done a lot of work breaking down the receiving options for the Steelers in his film rooms, and wrote a stellar piece back in June highlighting whether or not Johnson is poised to take his game to the next level in 2021, which I would encourage you to go check out after reading this. First, to start off our analysis of Johnson’s 2021 prospects, let’s look at how he fared this past season in 2020.

Diontae Johnson 2020 Stats:

144 targets, 88 receptions (61.1 catch %) for 923 yards (10.5 YPR) and seven TDs in 13 games started/15 played

One thing that is often brought up with Johnson is the sheer volume he sees from a target perspective in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive system. He plays the coveted Antonio Brown/Santonio Holmes role as the primary X-receiver in most formations, having the route running ability to create separation when facing both man and zone coverages. Because of this, along with the fact that QB Ben Roethlisberger’s M.O. the last few seasons is to get the ball out quick, Johnson ends up being the first read on a lot of pass plays, seeing all the targets he can handle.

However, another thing that is often associated with Diontae Johnson is the drops. Johnson led the league last season with 14 drops on the year. However, fellow Steelers Depot contributor Matthew Marczi posted an article a couple of weeks ago highlighting the breakdown by Matt Harmon at Reception Perception, stating that while the number of drops by Johnson isn’t ideal, his drop percentage when compared to the volume he receives stacks up pretty evenly with the likes of A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, and D.J. Moore in terms of number of drops based on the number of targets they receive.

Harmon stats that Johnson is just as promising as a developmental number one receiver as Brown and Metcalf from the same draft class, considering both are often floated around as top 10 receivers in the NFL. In fact, Johnson leads the entire 2019 WR draft class in total catches in his first two seasons with 147, while missing several games due to injury.

Another key stat to consider from this study conducted by Harmon is Johnson’s success rate at getting open against all types of coverage. As charted by Reception Perception, Johnson had a 77.7% success rate against man coverage (95th percentile), 87.8% against zone (96th percentile), and 76.9% against press coverage (86th percentile) in 2020. Thus, Johnson is the perfect option for what Ben and the Steelers offense has been looking to do the past couple of seasons, and will likely see more of the same heading into 2021 while implementing new OC Matt Canada’s offensive system.

Now I wasn’t initially a fan of the Diontae Johnson pick back in 2019. I actually had him mocked to Pittsburgh in my final mock draft, but that was later on Day 3 rather than in the third round. Drops and bobbled catches were in his college tape as well, along with the tendency to slip at the top of his routes and also the thin, frail frame making him susceptible to injury in the league, of which he has missed games and left games early due to various injuries suffered.

However, I do have to be willing to not give in to “take lock” and analyze the situation from an open mind free of bias. When you look at the season Johnson had in 2020, you can see he was a solid, steady contributor comparable to Allen Robinson, Terry McLaurin, and Robert Woods after returning from the Week 6 game his missed against Cleveland due to injury.

If you were to factor out the games missed or left early due to injury last season for Johnson, he would have been on pace for right about 1,230 receiving yards on 115 receptions in a full 16 games. This includes the game in which Johnson was benched early due to the drop issues he suffered at Buffalo. Now if we revert Johnson’s drops to six over the course of the season which more mirror what he did in his rookie season and during the course of his college career at Toledo, we would add another eight receptions at 10.5 YPR to total out to 1,314 receiving yards on 123 receptions 2020.

Now, extrapolate that to a 17-game schedule that we will see in 2021, and that comes out to 130 receptions for 1,396 receiving yards and roughly nine TDs. This would put Johnson almost in line with the production of Atlanta Falcons WR Calvin Ridley, who you can look to as a similar style of player and athlete, obviously averaging less YPR but similar total yardage, targets and TD upside as the first option in their respective teams’ passing attacks.

In fact, FantasyPros analyst Mike Tagliere stated in his study on Johnson that he could be the next third-year WR breakout that we have seen, first out of Ridley in 2020 and Chris Godwin in 2019, as players set to smash expectations at their current average draft positions.

Now this isn’t a ringing endorsement to say that Johnson is a better athlete than either Godwin or Ridley, as I personally would prefer to have either option on Pittsburgh’s roster over Johnson. However, this recognizes that Johnson, who ranked sixth in the NFL last season amongst wide receivers with 144 targets, is seeing the volume in the Steelers offense. As we know from a fantasy football perspective, volume (whether it be carries or targets) is king and is something we like to chase as it often leads to opportunity.

Obviously, Johnson needs to stay on the field for that volume to be realized, but again, Ridley did miss three games the year prior to his breakout season while leaving portions of other games early due to injury, and who can forget the injury-plagued season Michael Thomas had for the Saints this past season as the likely first receiver taken in most fantasy football drafts in 2021? This is to say that injury can happen to nearly any player in the game of football, and Johnson’s injury history compared to that of other players should deter you away from him in drafts.

We should expect the overall drop numbers to revert back to the mean as suggested above, meaning Johnson will likely have a better conversion rate on the targets that do come his way. Also, Tagliere pointed out in his study on Johnson that he only averaged 6.4 yards per target last season (10.5 YPR). Should his average depth of target improve, we could see Johnson’s efficiency improve with the high target volume, presenting a steady floor in fantasy with the room for top-12 numbers at the position.

Sure, the overall target numbers could decrease in 2021 with more of a focus on the run game and less total passes, but Pittsburgh has been near the top of the league in pass attempts the last several seasons with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger, meaning Johnson will still see plenty of opportunity going forward.

I have decided to not let my previous bias against Johnson deter me from the fact that he is a clear value in fantasy football this year. Currently, Johnson has an ADP of 55 overall in full-PPR leagues and is currently going as the WR #22 in the ESPN rankings. With the expected volume and upside Johnson has, I see this as a clear buy in likely the fifth round of 12-man league fantasy drafts, where you can either go RB-heavy to start the draft and still select Johnson as your WR2 who has the volume to be a stabilizing presence on your roster, with the potential to produce as a WR1 should he stay heathy and improve his poor efficiency from last season.

This is my endorsement to have Johnson as a target heading into your fantasy drafts next season who could have a bigger season than most will expect.

What are your thoughts on Diontae Johnson heading into 2021? Do you think he is in line for a jump in play heading into year three, or is simply who he is at this point? What do you think he can do stat-wise this upcoming season in a full season if he improves his efficiency? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!

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