Dynasty Dilemma: Diontae Johnson
By Dylan Schroeder
Sometimes I feel like I’m doing my best impersonation of Adam Sandler’s character, Stanley Sugerman, from his movie Hustle. A passionate has-been that uses his knowledge of the game that he used to play to scout talent. As I’m no longer connected to the game of football as a player, it’s fair to say that I’m all sorts of washed up – certainly athletically – and now use dynasty to help keep me connected to the game.
While Sugerman was routinely sitting courtside, slouched over the coffee cup wrapped tightly inside of his hand, I’m presently slouched over a keyboard with a Red Bull nearby, combing through the dynasty “Lost and Found” bin to find oversighted, forgotten, or even misguided talent.
And, yes, I’ve done it. I’ve found my “Bo Cruz” – the player that I’m willing to attach my legacy to. For those who have followed me for even a sliver of time, it should be of no surprise who that player is. My guy, Diontae Johnson, is far from washed up and deserves much higher praise from the dynasty community than he has been receiving. Not even Buc Nasty could hate this much. Hate! Hate! Hate! Hate!
For years now, Diontae Johnson has been a polarizing guy to the masses, and I do not understand it. At nearly every single turn of his young career, he has grossly out-performed expectations, yet he is routinely mistreated by mainstream football fans.
The former Toledo product was the 10th receiver taken in the 2019 NFL draft, and since then, he has recorded more receiving yards than everyone in his class not named for AJ Brown, DK Metcalf, or Terry McLaurin. He has also found a way to earn – yes, EARN – more targets and receptions than anyone in the class over that same timespan. Regardless of how you want to split it, he has overachieved his career expectations by quite a bit.
In fact, since coming into the league, Diontae Johnson ranks in the top ten in receptions (8th) and targets (5th) for all NFL receivers.
Diontae Johnson ADP vs. Fantasy Finish (PPR)
The 2022 season was the first time in Diontae’s career that he didn’t grossly out-perform his preseason ADP, and as a result, the dynasty community has completely lost their minds.
For those who aren’t watching games each Sunday with their eyeballs removed from their sockets, Diontae Johnson is easy to see as a hyper-talented player, and he passes the eye test with flying colors.
He’s nearly untouchable at the line of scrimmage because of his short area quickness, start-stop explosiveness, and a package of releases that leave cornerbacks grasping at thin air. There’s a level of versatility to his game that has rewarded opportunities within the offense to line up in different locations, show off a diverse route tree, and receive a nearly unprecedented amount of targets.
But to put it simply, Diontae Johnson creates separation at each level of the field with a higher success rate than most, regardless of the coverage.
If for some reason you’re struggling to see his talent, Diontae also smashes advanced statistics and analytical profiles like the great Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception. His track record shows that he has emerged into someone who is on the edge of mastering the art of separation.
Buy. It's an easy game. pic.twitter.com/zWVjpQia0W— Dylan (@DStweetedThis) April 7, 2023
According to PlayerProfiler.com, even in an appalling down year, Diontae Johnson ranked top 20 in target share, target rate, snap share, air yards, deep targets, and expected fantasy points per game. He was simultaneously top 10 in metrics such as total routes, route participation, red zone targets (!!!), and unrealized air yards.
While the entirety of the Pittsburgh offense struggled throughout the year, given the circumstances, the largest disappointment was the evaporation of Diontae Johnson’s touchdowns. For someone who has shown he kinda-sorta had a nose for the end zone, it was shocking that Johnson never ONCE found paydirt.
Only 7 players got 100+ targets and scored 0 receiving TD since targets tracked in 1992:— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) April 1, 2023
2022 Diontae Johnson (147)
1996 Michael Timpson (109)
2004 Amani Toomer (107)
2009 Torry Holt (103)
2013 Hakeem Nicks (101)
2019 Leonard Fournette (100)
2021 Laviska Shenault (100)
I get that you can’t just ignore what happened, but as the above tweet shows, this is a complete statistical anomaly. You can run the simulation on the 2022 NFL season 100 times, and this might be the only time Johnson comes up scoreless. As a result, Diontae’s dynasty value has completely shriveled up and has presented a tremendous opportunity to buy the stock of a great talent.
I promise his value is going to spike next season when we look up after week 1 and he starts the year with 8-112-1. Collectively, those within the dynasty community that have tarnished Diontae’s reputation will be punching the air.
If Diontae had just hit his average (6.7 touchdowns) from his previous three seasons – without even counting additional yardage from those plays – he’s sitting as the WR16, which is ahead of players like DK Metcalf, Mike Evans, Tee Higgins, and Chris Godwin.
Tomlin said Diontae Johnson's lack of touchdowns in 2022 were more of a reflection on the Steelers offense as a whole rather than Johnson's game.— Dale Lolley (@dlolley_pgh) March 27, 2023
I’ll admit, I didn’t think moving from Ben Roethlisberger’s corpse to Mitch Trubisky/Kenny Pickett was going to be as problematic for Diontae as it turned out to be. Initially, like many others, I figured either quarterback’s arm talent would be, at minimum, as strong and accurate as what we saw from Roethlisberger in his final season. While that point can be debated, the biggest difference I overlooked was the processing differences between the quarterbacks, and how that would disrupt the quality of Diontae’s targets and scoring opportunities.
Roethlisberger, obviously, was elite at recognizing advantages pre-snap and adjusting in ways that helped extend drives, score more points, and most importantly for this argument, find Diontae in easy, meaningful ways. While Trubisky and Pickett still found Diontae at a wildly high rate, the quality of those targets weren’t the same. Both the pre and post-snap processing shrunk the reliability and electricity of the offense.
It wasn’t just Diontae that struggled, either. The Pittsburgh wide receivers only had five total touchdowns on the year. Pat Freiermuth only had a couple. They were in-and-out of sync with the QB-carousel, but now will have some consistency there behind Pickett and an improved offensive line – spoiler, they’re drafting a tackle in round one.
As we’re rolling closer and closer to the 2023 NFL Draft, it feels that Diontae is trapped inside of the “lost and found” bin that I alluded to earlier. While it doesn’t take much to pluck him off of an opposing roster, I question what you’re going to find that’s better than him with the assets you’re holding onto?
The largest looming issue with Diontae Johnson is the fear that his teammate, George Pickens, has overtaken his position on the team as the undisputed, top wide receiver.
While advanced statistics suggest that Diontae is still in fact the top dog, there’s belief that Pickens will surpass him in his second season. Second-year receivers make jumps to greatness pretty frequently, so it isn’t crazy to think that what we saw from Pickens last year is just a small taste of what the future holds.
As a rookie, George Pickens commanded 84 targets and found a way to get loose for just over 800 yards and 4 touchdowns. He dazzled us with incredible contested-catches and showed a routine ability to make big plays down the field. His 15.6 average depth of target ended up being the third best in the league, and was a role he dominated from the jump!
George Pickens is already the best contested-catch WR in the NFL.— David J. Gautieri (@GuruFantasyWrld) December 19, 2022
His 69.6% contested-catch rate (16/23) ranks #1 amongst all WR’s with 20+ contested targets this season.
No other WR is above 65%.
However, Diontae has shown in the past that he can still be a high-end player while sharing the receiver room with another co-star. In 2020, JuJu Smith-Schuster saw 97 receptions on 128 targets and was still outdone by Diontae. In 2021, Diontae earned 107 catches on a whopping 169 targets alongside the much anticipated second-year-breakout of Chase Claypool. The Claypool project crashed and burned before being shipped off to Chicago, but once again, Diontae survived the allegations surrounding his ability.
While George Pickens certainly looks to be on his way toward being a legitimate, contributing young star in the league, there are several examples throughout the NFL where duos co-exist and even help each other from a fantasy perspective. The only thing that could become worrisome for Diontae is if Pittsburgh for some reason reached on a round one or two wide receiver that could cut into his piece of the pie. While they have a need at the position, I think it'd be wiser to find a compliment to Johnson and Pickens later on in the draft, rather than ignoring some team needs for another young, exciting splash pick early on.
A different reason to consider moving Diontae is that his top 10 performance in 2021 might end up becoming an outlier in comparison to the rest of his career. When we're looking at his situation, there's obviously a scenario where the offense doesn't take the step forward that's projected and he sputters in his ADP for the second year in a row, which would make the WR1 season from 2021 feel like something way into the distant past.
While it’s not impossible for Diontae Johnson to return to that top 15-ish status that we know he's capable of, there are many factors that could get in his way preventing him from returning to that ceiling. Maybe the best move for your dynasty roster is to find a manager or two that still believe in Diontae for the reasons described a hour ago into this reading, and you can flip him for some budding assets or combine him with a piece to level-up your receiver room.
According to KeepTradeCut.com and FantasyPros consensus dynasty rankings, some of the following receivers each have a higher dynasty ranking than Diontae Johnson: Jameson Williams, Christian Watson, Michael Pittman Jr., Jerry Jeudy, Treylon Burks, Brandon Aiyuk, George Pickens, Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson, Quentin Johnston, and Jordan Addison.
I have a huge issue with several of the names on the list being ahead of Johnson. Sure, you can talk me into a couple, but how many of these players have yet to step onto a NFL field, and project to be a player of Diontae's caliber? How many of these players just finished their first NFL season and weren’t able to compete in 10 or more games, let alone display the production profile that we’ve seen from Diontae? How many of these players are clinging to their first productive, relevant season and have used it to catapult up the rankings?
Few, if any, can be argued to that they are in a more secure role or are equally talented to Johnson. Even less on this list project to go to a realistic situation where they're going to have the opportunity to see 100+ targets per year, let alone 140.
It’s unlikely you come across another 26-year-old receiver at this price, who over the last 3 years ranks 5th in targets, 7th in receptions, and 17th in yards. Diontae Johnson is currently outside of the consensus top THIRTY at the position. It’s criminally low. Some folks are going to lose their jobs when he receives positive-touchdown-regression and the Steelers’ offense improves from where it was last season. He's going to absolutely SMASH the current expectations because the talent of this player didn't disappear, just the touchdowns.
I'm willing to trade the 1.08 or later for Diontae Johnson + X asset, and depending on my roster build and situation, I'd consider moving the 1.06 or 1.07 for Diontae + X and Y. I'm also willing to trade any player listed above (and more) for Diontae + X asset. He's potentially my number one buy this offseason, and I'm trying to get as much exposure as possible.
Dylan Schroeder joined the Dynasty Pros staff in 2023. Before this, he was writing for his personal blog site UnderratedSportsFan.com, as well as a few other free lance opportunities throughout the years. He’s passionate about dynasty football, teaching, and coaching. You can view his thoughts and more fantasy football content from him on his Twitter @DSTweetedThis.