The Path to a WR1 Fantasy Football Season: Diontae Johnson
You might think I’m crazy for even considering this player as part of our “Path to a WR1 Fantasy Football Season” series. And you know what? It does feel a little bit like a kamikaze take. Lots of analysts have defended Diontae Johnson in the past, giving logical and sound reasons for fantasy managers to pick him year after year as a value in drafts, but he always finds a way to disappoint everyone and make his supporters look delusional.
Things have been changing a lot in Pittsburgh during the last few years. The Steelers are no longer the strongest team in the AFC North. A new generation of young players and some recent changes in the coaching staff have been trying to shake things off and find a way to bring back the glory days.
But will this finally be the year Diontae Johnson won’t disappoint? Let’s look at what it would take for him to be a WR1.
2022 Season Recap
It wasn’t pretty. Having Diontae Johnson on your roster felt like a constant black cloud over your head. The talent, the opportunity, and the targets were there. But luck simply wasn’t on his side.
Some analysts projected his target share to decrease drastically in 2022. After George Pickens’ arrival, Pittsburgh’s receiving corps felt a bit crowded. Chase Claypool was entering his third year as a Steeler, Najee Harris was coming off a great rookie season with 94 targets, and Pat Freiermuth was expected to claim a bigger slice of the passing pie in his promising sophomore season.
All signs were pointing to Johnson hitting free agency in 2023 because that’s the Pittsburgh way. They usually dispose of their veteran wide receivers as they draft new talent. Besides, Ben Roethlisberger had just retired, which raised some questions about Diontae’s continuity. But he signed a 2-year, $36.7M contract extension in August, securing his role as the team’s alpha wide receiver.
But how “alpha” was his fantasy production? He finished the season as WR39 (two spots behind Pickens) which is far from ideal. But he had 147 targets and caught 86 passes! From a rookie quarterback! Only six other wide receivers had more targets and he was only one reception short from tying Ja’Marr Chase’s 87 catches.
The problem is he only managed to turn those receptions into 882 yards and the devastating amount of ZERO TOUCHDOWNS. Yup, even Jalen Reagor and Kenny Golladay had more TDs than Diontae. It’s not surprising that he averaged only 8.1 fantasy points per game.
Range of Outcomes
A month ago, Diontae Johnson’s ADP was around WR38, which is understandable after finishing 39th. But he’s been rising up the charts. At the moment of writing this article, his ADP is WR33 and he’s finally surpassed his teammate George Pickens. He’s currently ranked at WR35 in the Fantasy Footballers 2022 WR rankings and frankly, yes, WR35 is within his range of outcomes. But I strongly believe that’s his floor for 2023. Things would need to really go south for him to repeat such a hideous fantasy finish.
But we’re not here to dwell on the lower end of Johnson’s range of outcomes. My goal here is to show you what would need to happen for him to finish as a top-12 WR. So let’s dive in.
Laying down the path
It’s well known that targets are the key stat for wide receivers’ success in fantasy football, and this is where Diontae Johnson excels. He is great at earning them. Many people thought he would stop getting peppered with targets after Big Ben retired. But that wasn’t the case. His targets did come down from 169 in 2021 to 147 in 2022, but it could’ve been way worse considering it was a transition year with a mix of Mitch Trubisky and a rookie QB under center. Besides, 147 is just above the 144.2 average yards from the past five seasons’ WR1s.
As Kyle Borgognoni stated on this year’s Path to a WR1 Fantasy Football Season Primer, most WR1s need to have at least a 20% target share. Diontae Johnson’s targets amounted to 27% of the team’s total. A very healthy percentage that shouldn’t be threatened in 2023. Pickens has not been as good as Johnson in earning targets, Claypool is gone and the team invested almost nothing in Allen Robinson, so I don’t project him to take a significant slice of the pie.
Catch rate & Receptions
Johnson caught 86 passes out of 147. That’s a 58.5% catch rate. But as Kyle also said on the primer, this stat is not as sticky as the target share. Catch rate depends on a lot of external factors, like quarterback play. It’s no secret that rookie quarterbacks tend to have a negative effect on receivers’ production. So for objectiveness’ sake, let’s take a look at his catchable target rate.
Only 85% of his 147 targets were deemed catchable. Considering this, his true catch rate was 68.8%. Still, nothing to write home about, but his 86 receptions were the 13th highest amongst wide receivers. That’s borderline WR1. Just a little improvement in Pickett’s passing game should take care of this one. We should expect better quality targets coming Dionate’s way in 2023 as Jason laid out on a recent Fantasy Footballers podcast.
Yards, Air Yards & ADOT
There’s a lot to improve in this department. Diontae Johnson finished 27th with 885 receiving yards (51.9 per game). That’s pretty far from WR1 numbers, considering the average yards from WR1s in the past five years has been 1,311. He was also pretty inefficient in yards after the catch, averaging only 1.4 yards per target, and his average depth of target was only 10.6. Finishing 53rd in ADOT is clearly not in the “How to be a WR1” manual.
But there’s also a lot of room to improve and regress positively. He was the WR14 in air yards with 1,555, which means he left 875 unrealized yards. That’s a lot of missed opportunities. The average air-yard conversion rate for wide receivers is around 72% and he converted only 56.2%, so there’s a clear way up. But once again it will all depend on the quality of Kenny Pickett’s targets.
This is the actual key to unlocking the path to Diontae Johnson’s WR1 season. We already covered market share, but let’s zoom into his red zone stats. He was targeted 16 times inside the 20. That’s a 28.6% red zone target share. This kind of opportunity usually translates into touchdowns. But he didn’t get a single one and the Steelers were dead last in passing touchdowns, so his amount of TDs has nowhere to go but up.
|Team||Fewest Pass TDs in 2022|
Statistically speaking, the volume Diontae Johnson saw in 2022 should have been enough to get him around 7 TDs, which would have made him finish inside the top-20. If the team as a whole is just a little bit better at moving the ball this year, Diontae should be able to pass the 9.5 touchdown mark and enter the WR1 conversation.
Diontae Johnson will have a positive regression (or “progression”, as the Fantasy Hitman would say). That’s almost guaranteed after the bad luck he had last season. The Steelers will be a better team, more in sync with their quarterback. Some of the checkboxes to hit WR1 numbers might feel harder to tick than others, but all of them are definitely within his range of outcomes. However, Kenny Pickett’s performance will be a key factor.
So if you still think I’m crazy for bringing him up as a WR1 candidate, what about top-15? Top-20? Those finishes would still make him an amazing value at his current ADP, so buy the dip and get DJ.