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Cheap Receivers: Diontae Johnson

In this series, I’ll be taking a look at receivers who appear considerably undervalued at their current ADP and present an attractive risk/reward proposition for prospective owners. For those interested, the previous article focussed on Jets WR Jamison Crowder and can be read here: https://fantasyfuru.com/2020/06/24/cheap-receivers-jamison-crowder/

To help with the selection process, I’ve decided to use some basic criteria. First, I’m only targeting receivers ranked outside the top 40 in terms of ADP in dynasty and redraft formats. Consequently, it should be understood that I’m not anticipating WR1 or even consistent WR2 production. That is simply unrealistic. Instead, I’m hoping to achieve solid WR3 production with situational upside for more. Second, I’m looking at players aged 28 and younger. The reason for this is purely selfish as I prefer dynasty formats and like to acquire players with a longer theoretical shelf life. Additionally, these low cost players can see a dramatic spike in their value if they hit, while our downside is fairly limited. Third, I’m looking at receivers with a clear path to both snaps and targets. More specifically, those who are at worst third on the depth chart and saw at least a 60% snap share (Sample size >8 games) last season.

As the title indicates, this article focuses on Diontae Johnson of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Currently, Johnson has an ADP of WR46 in both dynasty and redraft formats.

Why Johnson?

To be honest, I’ve been a big proponent of Johnson since he exploded in 2017 at Toledo. Take a look at his receiving stats from that year.

GPTargetsReceptionsCatch %YardsYPRTD
147410769.2127812.813

Those are some eye-popping numbers and absolutely worthy of hype. Having said that, we also need to remember that he played in the MAC so his competition wasn’t exactly great. But, when the Steelers took him 66th overall it helped validate my thinking. Following his selection, Johnson drew some lofty comparisons to AB as the two are very similar in size, athleticism and skill set.

College aside, the true reason for choosing Johnson here is that he fits the selection criteria perfectly. Entering his second NFL season, Johnson will have just turned 24. For dynasty owners, this is particularly exciting given the historical success of NFL WR’s breaking out in their second year.

In his rookie season, Johnson seized a starting role and looks poised to carry that into 2020. Last year alone, he managed a 66.9% snap share, 18.9% team target share and saw 92 total targets. Those numbers are respectable by any standard and become even more so when taking into account he was a rookie.

Rookie Season

To begin, here are some of Johnson’s receiving stats from last season:

GPTargetsReceptionsYardsYPRYPGTDFP/G
16925968011.542.558.4
Assuming 0.5 PPR scoring

These numbers are solid and deserving of more credit when we factor in the horrific QB play Pittsburgh suffered from last season. Not only did Johnson achieve those numbers with terrible QB play, he also consistently did battle with many of the league’s starting corners. In large part, this is due to Johnson playing the vast majority of his snaps on the perimeter (7.9% in the slot). Perhaps most impressive, is that Johnson managed to lead the Steelers in receptions, targets and receiving touchdowns in his rookie campaign.

Second, and I know it’s only one season, but Diontae Johnson led all receivers in target separation last year. Not only does that give a little more substance to those AB comparisons, it’s also quite the accomplishment for a rookie. In addition to that, he posted a true catch rate of 88.1%, good for 16th in the NFL. Since I’m layering it on thick at this point, I’ll also throw out the fact that he only dropped 3 passes all year.

So what should we expect going forward?

2020 Outlook

As a whole, we should almost certainly expect the Steelers offense to be better in 2020. The return of Big Ben is monumental for this unit and Johnson will be a direct benefactor of that. It’s also been reported that the two have been working out together consistently during the offseason. This is tremendously important considering Johnson spent most of his time catching passes from the likes of Rudolph and Hodges last season. Working on their chemistry and timing will go a long way toward continued success this season.

Earlier, I had mentioned that Johnson led the Steelers in receiving scores last season. It’s impossible to say if he will do so again this year however, with an improved offense will come increased scoring opportunities. This bodes well for Johnson.

A final point, due to the absence of Roethlisberger last year, the Steelers opted for a more run-heavy approach. This resulted in them attempting the 7th fewest passes per game. With the return of Ben, they should revert towards their 2017 and 2018 totals. How much did they pass then, you ask? In 2017 they averaged the second most pass attempts per game and in 2018 they averaged the most. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that’s probably good news for Johnson.

Competition for Targets

Talent is important, but volume is a primary driver of production when it comes to fantasy football. When looking at the Steelers offense, one can see they boast a number of talented pass catchers. Fortunately for Johnson, he was able to command a large target share last season on an offense that threw considerably less than they will this year. Furthermore, the Steelers utilized 11 personnel on 70% of their plays last year and 69% in 2018. For those unfamiliar, 11 personnel is when the offense lines up with 3 WR’s, 1 TE and 1 RB. Currently, Johnson is a lock to start in 3 WR sets and you can make a very compelling case that he would start in 2 WR sets as well. Let’s examine his competition a little closer.

First, we should acknowledge that JuJu is still the top receiving option in Pittsburgh. Although that should remain the case throughout the year, JuJu spends a large portion of his time working out of the slot. Last year, he took 59.3% of his snaps from the slot and 56.6% in 2018. As mentioned, Johnson works primarily on the perimeter so JuJu shouldn’t eat into many of his snaps, if any. When it comes to targets, JuJu will get his but Roethlisberger has proven throughout his career that he has no difficulty supporting multiple fantasy relevant players. For example, in 2018 JuJu saw 166 targets, while Antonio Brown saw 168 (both finished as WR1’s). If Johnson can manage 75% of the targets Brown saw it would project him for 126 and place him squarely in the WR3 or better conversation.

Aside from JuJu, Johnson will need to battle James Washington for targets. While Johnson earned more targets than Washington last year, Washington posted a better yardage total at season’s end. To date, Washington has been utilized as more of a deep threat and that’s evidenced by Johnson’s aDOT being roughly 40% less than Washington’s. At this point in time, Johnson is ahead of Washington in the pecking order but it’s a situation to monitor as we move forward.

Finally, the additions of Eric Ebron and Chase Claypool merit consideration. Will Ebron’s addition lead to more 12 personnel? It’s a risk. It’s also a risk that Ebron siphons targets from Johnson, though it’s more likely his presence would impact fellow TE Vance McDonald. When it comes to Claypool, there shouldn’t be much cause for concern yet. He’s a very raw prospect who has excellent measurables but was unable to produce well at the collegiate level. As an aside, I’m a fan of ND football and therefore spent a considerable amount of time watching Claypool play. In my opinion, he plays considerably slower than his 40 time suggests, struggles to separate and lacks burst in his routes. He might carve out a small red zone role this year but he shouldn’t be viewed as a direct threat to Johnson.

Wrap-up

In the end, taking the plunge on Johnson this year could be one of the best risk/reward scenarios fantasy players are presented with. It’s incredibly difficult to find an inexpensive sophomore receiver who posted a stellar rookie campaign in a lackluster situation. In 2020, that situation will rectify itself, and Johnson has the looks of someone who carries a very safe floor relative to price. When we begin to consider his ceiling this year and beyond, the sky’s the limit. 

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