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Hype Overload: Diontae Johnson

by DynastyComplex

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One of the dynasty community's top "sleeper" picks heading into the 2020 season is Steelers Sophomore WR Diontae Johnson. Johnson played all 16 games last season, finishing with 59 reception on 92 targets for 680 yards and 5 touchdowns.He finished as WR39 overall, and WR54 on a per/game basis (PPR). In terms of points per game, DJ was tucked right in between Raiders receivers Hunter Renfrow and Tyrell Williams at 10.2 pts/game.Johnson is about to turn 24 and will battle with James Washington and incoming rookie Chase Claypool for second billing in the Steelers receiving corp behind incumbent #1 Juju Smith-Schuster. So why all the hype over DJ, after a productive but lackluster rookie season? The biggest reason is his separation: he led the league in separation yards per target last season. On top of that, he ranked at or near the top of rookie WR ranks for Rec and Yds, and saw ample opportunity with Juju sidelined much of the year. Many dynastyheads are extrapolating the production he posted in 2019 to 2020, accounting for a greater workload and more accurate QB play. Plus, Juju's contract extension has been, well, non existent to this point, and an early departure from PIT would mean DJ could ascend to the #1 role sooner than expected. Let's dig into his current price, his performance last season, and what we can realistically expect moving forward.


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DJ faced 9 top 16 pass defenses last season (by yards allowed), and posted 3/37/0 average splits in those 9 games (29/329/1 total). Against the 7 bottom 16 pass Ds he faced, he rolled for 4/50/.5 (30/351/3 total). Clearly, DJ benefited a lot from poor defenses, but also raw playing time. He managed to remain healthy for all 16 games and didn't have much competition in a Juju-less receiving room, and both these factors manifest in his raw season totals. DJ hauled in 59/92 targets, for a catch rate of 64% - 21st among WRs with at least 50 receptions. His 6 drops were tied for 13th most among receivers with at least 50 grabs, Out of the 46 receivers with at least 50 grabs last season, DJ ties for 36th in yards per receptions. My point: DJ wasn't very efficient last year, despite the huge opportunity afforded to him. And sure, he lead qualified receivers in average separation last season, but that isn't a great predictor of future fantasy success on it's own. I mean, the next 5 receivers after DJ in average separation were Albert Wilson, Hunter Renfrow, Christian Kirk, Robert Woods and Nelson Agholor. Where's the hype for them? It is no doubt good to separate from your man as a wide receiver, but that alone does not yield great production. DJ was also given a sizable cushion of 6.1 yards on average, more than the likes of Kirk or Agholor were afforded. Diontae wasn't particularly effective after the catch either, posting a negative real yards/reception (expected y/r - y/r). All in all, DJ's rookie campaign was by no means a bust, but the raw numbers may be overselling what we can expect in year 2. Now let's take a look at his situation in 2020.

Along with DJ, James Washington, Juju Smith-Schuster and Ryan Switzer are all returning to the WR room, joined by new additions Deon Cain from IND and rookie Chase Claypool. Vance McDonald returns at TE, joined by Eric Ebron, and the backfield remains the same, save the addition of home run hitting rookie Anthony McFarland Jr. Let's start this breakdown by slicing up targets by position group based on 2018, Big Ben's most recent healthy season:

WR: 63.8%

RB: 21.6%

TE: 14.5%

Using 650 attempts as our base case for Big Ben next season, that affords 415 WR targets, 140 RB targets and 95 TE targets. Juju saw 166 targets in 2018, so we'll keep that steady for this coming season, leaving 249 targets to split between the rest of the WR corp. DJ would have to dominate the rest of the WR corp, including James Washington who saw only 12 less targets than DJ last season, in order to significantly improve upon his 92 targets last season. 

I think a realistic expectation for Diontae Johnson next season is for him to take a step forward efficiency wise, but breaking 92 targets should require another injury riddled season by Juju, or significant time missed by Washington and Claypool. Big Ben also has two legit pass catching TEs this season with the addition of Ebron, and multiple pass catchers out of the backfield, so we may even see that WR target share diminish as a whole. Overall, DJ is as great a dart throw as you could find in the middle of the second round and beyond of this year's draft, but anything more than that and you're letting the hype train get to your head. At this point, he's a WR4 with WR3 upside this season. Here's how I would slot DJ into this year's rookie class:

1. Jonathan Taylor

2. Jerry Jeudy

3. Clyde Edwards-Helaire

4. Ceedee Lamb

5. JK Dobbins

6. Deandre Swift

7. Henry Ruggs

8. Denzel Mims

9. Cam Akers

10. Justin Jefferson

11. Jalen Reagor

12. Brandon Aiyuk

13. Tee Higgins

14. Michael Pittman

15. Ke'shawn Vaughn

16. Diontae Johnson

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