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The Great Debate: Diontae Johnson (2021 Fantasy Football)

Jul 5, 2021
Diontae Johnson

Fantasy football draft season is officially here, and the time has come to refine your stance on players. What better way to do that than a good, old-fashioned debate! We’re rolling out our debate series where one writer higher on a given player will take on another that’s lower than our expert consensus rankings.

We have Jason Katz (@jasonkatz13) and Zak Hanshew (@ZaktheMonster) debating Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson to kick things off.

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The Debate

Diontae Johnson is currently WR23 according to FantasyPros’ ADP (half-PPR formats). I’ve got him ranked as my WR14, and that’s only because I feel a sense of obligation to have certain guys ahead of him. Diontae Johnson is going to be a WR1 this season. How do I know this? Well, we’ve already seen it.

Johnson finished as the WR21 last season (minimum 8 games played), averaging 14.9 PPR ppg. He’s being drafted where he finished last year – at his absolute floor. Johnson is the clear WR1 in a Steelers offense that will have to throw more than they want to due to a depleted offensive line. And who does Ben Roethlisberger always look for near the line of scrimmage? Diontae Johnson.

Johnson averaged 9.6 targets per game last season, which isn’t fully indicative of how heavily targeted he was. Johnson saw double-digit targets in a whopping 10 of his 15 games played, and in two of those other five games, he left in the first half due to an injury. And remember that 14.9 ppg number I mentioned he averaged in 2020? If you remove the two games he left early when he played just 9% and 24% of the snaps, his per-game average jumps up to 16.9 ppg. For context, that’s what last year’s overall WR10 Justin Jefferson averaged. Johnson is an absolute lock to average over nine targets a game and is poised to push for a WR1 finish as he continues to improve in just his third NFL season.
– Katz

Johnson was huge in 2020, but it’s a new season, my dude. Can he be a back-end WR2 or high-end WR3? Maybe. But that’s his ceiling. You’re right that Pittsburgh threw the ball a ton last season. In fact, the Steelers led the NFL in passing attempts (656). They also finished last season with the fifth-fewest carries in the NFL (373) and the least amount of rushing yards (1,351) and yards per carry (3.6). That imbalance in the offensive game plan likely contributed to Pittsburgh starting the season 11-0 and finishing the last five games 1-4.

An aging Ben Roethlisberger can’t play at an elite level for an entire season, and it remains to be seen just how effective he can be in 2021. That’s why Pittsburgh drafted Najee Harris in the first round. The elite bruiser scored 50 times over his final two seasons at Alabama and should be able to contribute immediately for a Pittsburgh team that’s desperate to get the run game going.

After a disastrous finish to last season that felt like the team ran out of steam, I think Mike Tomlin will make it a point to run the ball more. The only reason Johnson is being heralded as a top-tier WR by some is because of the perceived volume he’ll carry into the new season. I think that volume is a mirage, and the emergence of Harris as a legitimate running back will take the ball out of Ben’s hands and leave fewer targets available for Johnson.
– Hanshew

Is it within the range of outcomes that Johnson ends up just a low WR2/high WR3…I guess so. I don’t think it’s likely, but I can definitely come up with a sequence of events that leads to it happening. But to call that his ceiling is objectively false because we literally saw him exceed that finish in 2020. Nothing has changed in Pittsburgh that would alter Johnson’s range of outcomes. His ceiling remains that of a mid WR1, while his floor is that low WR2/high WR3 you mentioned.

We’ve seen quarterbacks play at a high level into their early 40s. It’s certainly plausible that Roethlisberger will actually improve this season, being another year removed from his elbow surgery.

I agree Tomlin would prefer not to be as pass-heavy as the Steelers were last season. I don’t think he’ll have a choice. If Najee Harris keeps running into the backs of offensive linemen that can’t generate any push, the Steelers will have no choice but to call more passing plays to mask the ineffectiveness of their offensive line.

And even if the Steelers can run the ball more, we shouldn’t assume the decrease in targets will come at Johnson’s expense. We can disagree over Johnson’s talent. We can disagree over Johnson’s fantasy upside. One undisputed thing is Johnson’s status as the Steelers’ WR1 and primary passing-game target. He is going to be the primary read more often than not.

In 2020, Roethlisberger averaged 40.5 passing attempts per game. Since 2011, the fewest attempts per game for Roethlisberger was 34.2 in 2011. His next fewest was 36.2 in 2012. More recently, in Roethlisberger’s last three seasons (2017, 2018, 2020), he’s averaged 37.4, 42.1, and 40.5 pass attempts per game. For Johnson’s target volume to suffer significantly, Roethlisberger would have to average his fewest attempts per game in the past five years, and Johnson’s target share/efficiency numbers would have to remain stagnant/decline. Is there a world where Johnson fails this season? Of course. But it entails a perfect confluence of just about everything going wrong.

On the flip side, if Roethlisberger only sees a modest decline in passing volume, but Johnson’s target share and efficiency numbers improve, which by all accounts they should entering his third season, his ceiling is somewhere in the 100-1300-12 range – a mid WR1. Using not just range of outcomes for Johnson but also considering the likelihood of where he lands on that range, Johnson presents an ideal combination of high floor and high ceiling in 2021.
– Katz

Jason, I think you make some awesome points, but dude, you’re just wrong on this one. Sure, Johnson performed better than a WR2/3 last season, but this is 2021, and Pittsburgh is going to have to adjust its previously one-dimensional formula if it hopes to advance deep into the playoffs. New season, new range of outcomes.

Quarterbacks can certainly perform at a high level into their early 40s, but Big Ben? He’s not investing millions of dollars into his body or eating avocado ice cream like Tom Brady. To think that Roethlisberger can play at a high level for an entire season at this age and with the laundry list of injuries he’s sustained is ludicrous.

Over the first 11 games of the season, Roethlisberger went for 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions while completing 67.5% of his passes. Over the next four games, Big Ben went for eight touchdowns and four interceptions while completing just 61% of his passes. He wore down as the season went on, and the Steelers will surely be cognizant of that in 2021.

I do not disagree with Johnson’s talent, but his status as the clear-cut WR1 for this team? Are we completely sure that Chase Claypool doesn’t take a big step forward in Year 2 a la JuJu Smith-Schuster when the latter went 111/1,426/7 in 2018? Are we completely sure that Smith-Schuster doesn’t bounce back from the pedestrian 831 yards he posted on 97 receptions?

Even if Johnson is the primary read, he won’t be leaps and bounds ahead of Claypool or Smith-Schuster. In 2020, Johnson finished behind both in yards per target, finished behind in touchdowns scored, and finished second in receptions and yards per reception. He has a clearly defined role for this Steelers team, but so do the other two talented wideouts on the roster. He did lead the trio in one category, though: drops, with a ridiculous 14. Betting on top-15 or even top-20 production for Johnson is a bit of a stretch for me, especially considering the Steelers invested a first-round pick into a stud running back and re-signed Smith-Schuster.

The high floor you mention can only be there if the Steelers stick to a one-dimensional game plan that involves chucking the ball up 40-45 times a game. Even then, Johnson faces strong competition for targets. He’s not a guy I’ll be drafting at his current ADP.
– Hanshew

The great part about Roethlisberger this season is there are two outcomes:

  1. Big Ben has a bounce-back season and takes Johnson’s efficiency to another level.
  2. Big Ben remains a shell of his former self and resorts to another low depth of target season and just peppers Johnson with targets just like he did last season.

So no matter what Roethlisberger we get, Johnson still looks great.

I like Chase Claypool, too, but he and Johnson play very different roles. It’s abundantly clear that JuJu is the WR3 on this team and will likely only be on the field in three-receiver sets, and if he is on the field in two-receiver sets, it will be at Claypool’s expense. We have four years of NFL data on JuJu. At this point, we know who he is. All three of the Steelers’ wide receivers are talented in their own right, and all three have defined roles that we saw last season, which we have no reason to expect to change this season. Johnson’s defined role is that of the primary read/target hog/go-to receiver.

As for the drops, I’m sure you’re well aware of the irrelevancy of drops. They only matter if they lead to a reduction in volume. Yes, Johnson did get benched for a half due to his drops last season, but that was clearly to give him a mental break. It had zero impact on his status as the unquestioned alpha WR1 on this team, as evidenced by the 27 total targets he saw in the two games following the benching. Johnson has no history of drops issues. It was all in his head. I’m confident he’s worked that out and will have a relatively average drop count this season.

I couldn’t agree more about not drafting Johnson at his ADP. No shot I will take that chance. His ADP is at least a round too low, probably two. Pending whatever Pittsburgh’s QB situation looks like in 2022, Johnson should be at least a third-round pick.

Draft position will matter, and auction price will matter, but my goal is to put Diontae Johnson on literally every single one of my PPR teams in 2021.
– Katz

The Analysts

Despite missing one full game and a large portion of another, Johnson finished with 144 targets in 2020, which ranked sixth among wide receivers. Unfortunately, he was not particularly efficient with them, averaging just 6.4 yards per target. Part of his issues were drops, but Ben Roethlisberger’s drop-down mentality certainly didn’t help, either. Still, chasing targets at wide receiver is never a bad thing. If Johnson would’ve averaged just 7.4 yards per target (easily attainable), he would’ve finished as the WR14. He should be a safe high-floor WR2 with upside for top-12 numbers.
– Mike Tagliere

When he’s healthy and in the lineup, Johnson’s target totals rival that of the top-tier fantasy wideouts. While he’s struggled with drops – 14 in 2020 – Big Ben repeatedly looked his way. As long as he’s on the field, Johnson will be a safe fantasy option that comes with a very high floor. He’ll need to clean up the drops to ascend into the top-15 at the WR position, but the opportunity is absolutely in front of him. If Claypool takes a big step forward in 2021, though, that could take away some of the opportunity from Johnson in what promises to be a crowded offense. It’s enough to be at least aware of when you’re on the clock.
– Kyle Yates

The Public

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