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Rookie Spotlight - Diontae Johnson


One of the most perplexing selections of the 2019 NFL Draft was Pittsburgh Steelers' third-round wide receiver, Diontae Johnson. The Steelers took Johnson in the third round ahead of dozens of WRs which the vast majority of scouts and analysts had ranked above him.

Wherever I looked, I saw a sixth or seventh round grade on Johnson, at best. Some places had him graded as an undrafted free agent. The fact that the Steelers took Johnson in the third round matters, but draft capital can only mask a lack of ability so much. We've seen plenty of WRs with massive draft capital like Laquon Treadwell, Kevin White, and Devante Parker, to name a few, that completely flopped at the next level. The Steelers do have a pretty good track record with drafting wide receivers. Is Diontae Johnson their next gem find?

When evaluating prospects' likelihood of NFL success, we care about three things:
1. College performance
2. Athletic measurables
3. Draft capital

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College Performance

Although he did next to nothing as a freshman, the fact that Johnson played in just about every game as a freshman is important. WRs that redshirt have a low likelihood of success in the NFL.

When analyzing a prospect's ceiling, we look at his best college season, which, for Johnson, was his sophomore year where he posted 1278 yards and 13 touchdowns on 74 receptions. Johnson played at a small school in Toledo so it is important that he was dominant. His 34% dominator rating ranks in the 63rd percentile. That's certainly above the 30% threshold a receiver realistically needs to achieve in order to have any shot at a successful NFL career, but given the lack of real competition for targets, it's definitely lower than a small school prospect should ideally have.

For comparison purposes, Andy Isabella went to UMass and his dominator rating was 52.2%, 97th percentile. Going back a number of years, T.Y. Hilton had a 41.9% dominator rating, 84th percentile, at Florida Atlantic. Going back even further, Greg Jennings, a Western Michigan product, had a 46.5% dominator rating, 92nd percentile. Small school WRs that go on to have productive NFL careers have historically dominated in college. Johnson fails to check this box.

In his junior season, Johnson regressed considerably, amassing just 761 receiving yards and eight touchdowns on 49 receptions. It's far from a death sentence for his NFL outlook, but a significant regression is obviously not a positive sign.

 

Athletic Measurables

At 5'10, 183 lbs, Johnson profiles as either a speedy flanker or a shifty slot man. Unfortunately, Johnson is neither fast nor agile. Johnson 4.53 40 time ranks in the 57th percentile, which isn't terrible. It is his 37th percentile burst score and 16th percentile agility score that are extremely alarming. I do think SPARQ-x ratings are overrated, but Johnson is a 22nd percentile SPARQ-x athlete with overall poor athletic measurables. He's small, unathletic, and slow for his size. He also has small hands. What exactly does he do well?

Film grinders will argue that Johnson displays strong body control and good separation. I believe that to be associated with confirmation bias based upon where he was selected. If Johnson has these skills, why did he test so poorly in the agility drills? And why didn't it lead to more productivity at the collegiate level?

 

Rookie Season Outlook

JuJu Smith-Schuster is the obvious WR1. Behind him should be James Washington, Ryan Switzer, and Donte Moncrief. Can Diontae Johnson beat out any of those three guys? He's not better than Switzer at what Switzer does. I see no reason for the Steelers to just give up on Washington. I think Moncrief is terrible, but they just signed him this offseason to be a starter. I don't see any way Johnson has any real impact as a rookie barring an injury. He should be firmly off the redraft radar, even in the deepest of leagues.

 

Long-Term Outlook

Johnson is definitely an NFL player due to, at the very least, his contributions on special teams. That gives him an immediate path to being active on game days, which at least gives him a chance to find his way onto the field.

I think Johnson's absolute ceiling is a real-life WR3, which could warrant being on fantasy rosters on a prolific Steelers offense. The WR3 on any old team isn't valuable, but as long as Ben Roethlisberger is around, which looks likely to be the case for at least two more seasons, Johnson would be worth monitoring if he can take that WR3 job. If you asked me to make a prediction, however, I would say Johnson makes his living on special teams and is never a meaningful contributor as a wide receiver.

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