Antonio Brown was a target machine. When he ran his way out of town, all those targets had to go somewhere. They’ve gone to Diontae Johnson, who has come close to matching AB’s rate of passes thrown his way. Let’s put the numbers to it.
In his first three years in the league, Johnson has 405 total targets. 92 his rookie season (one played with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges, by the way), 144 in 2020, and 169 in 2021. League-wide, that’s one of the top numbers in the league. Here’s how it ranks.
Most Targets Since 2019
1. Keenan Allen – 453
2. Cooper Kupp – 449
3. Davante Adams – 445
4. Stefon Diggs – 424
5. D.J. Moore – 416
6. Travis Kelce – 415
7. Diontae Johnson – 405
Those are the only seven players with 400+ targets over that span. An impressive list of some of the top receivers (and tight end) in football. He’s up there with some of the top slot receivers in football (Allen, Kupp) and just some of the top receivers in the game (Adams, Diggs, Kelce).
Go another step and consider the fact these are Johnson’s first three years in the league. And in terms of target share, he hit the ground running. Since targets have been reliably tracked since 1992, Johnson’s numbers are among the best.
Most Targets, First Three Seasons (1992-Present)
1. A.J. Green – 457
1. Odell Beckham Jr – 457
3. Mike Evans – 443
4. Anquan Boldin – 440
5. Michael Thomas – 417
6. DeAndre Hopkins – 410
7. Keyshawn Johnson – 409
7. Jarvis Landry – 409
9. Diontae Johnson – 405
10. Joey Galloway – 401
Again, an impressive list and one that does include some names of earlier eras, Johnson and Galloway, showing target numbers aren’t solely inflated by this present day, pass-happy world (though it no doubt influences it).
Just focusing on Steelers’ history, Johnson laps the field. The targets he’s seen his first three years are far more than any other player.
Most Targets By A Steeler, First Three Seasons (1992-Present)
1. Diontae Johnson – 405
2. Plaxico Burress – 329
3. JuJu Smith-Schuster – 315
Johnson has 76 more targets than second place Plaxico Burress and 90 more than Smith-Schuster, a fellow Day 2 draft pick who caught passes from Ben Roethlisberger, mitigating the era skew.
Why does Johnson gobble up so many targets? Talent is an obvious component. The Steelers correctly evaluated his ability as an every-down receiver. His ability to separate and create space is inviting for a quarterback. He also serves as the team’s primary X receiver, often isolating him on the backside of 3×1 formations, getting 1v1 with the cornerback and lending itself to more targets. If the quarterback gets a favorable pre-snap read, say the receiver is running a slant against a corner playing outside leverage, that’s where the ball is going.
Of course, targets alone don’t always completely equate to success. The best receivers do get the ball the most, but Johnson isn’t quite in that best-of-the-best yet. He’s had his ups and downs but is coming off an overall strong junior season. It may have ended on a note reminiscent of his sophomore year, but regardless of what quarterback is under center in 2022, Johnson should easily see 140+ targets again.