Had free agency gone according to plan, Diontae Johnson was going to be everyone’s favorite breakout candidate in fantasy football. The third-year pro was shaping up to be 2021’s Calvin Ridley, but the return of Juju Smith-Schuster slowed down that hype train. However, Smith-Schuster’s presence could serve as a silver lining, as Diontae Johnson should still have a great season, and his price has never been lower.
Diontae Johnson Is the Ultimate Fantasy Football Buy Low
Throughout the offseason, I have been working on building a model that can calculate expected performance based on air yards, red zone looks, and snap counts. This formula is based on data from the last three seasons (you don’t want to go too far back, as football is constantly changing) and I applied the results to find expected performances in the 2020 season.
One of the most valuable uses of this data is finding out how often a wide receiver SHOULD have been great, based on how they were used on the offense. Diontae Johnson excelled in these metrics, and the former third-round pick absolutely dominated in my formula. It should come as no surprise that Davante Adams had the highest rate of expected top-12 finishes (62%), but Diontae Johnson was right behind him at 54%. This wasn’t a fluke, as he was also eighth in top-24 finishes (62%), and 13th in top-36 finishes (69%).
These numbers are obviously fantastic, but a deeper dive shows that they aren’t giving Johnson enough credit. This specific formula uses games played for the denominator and doesn’t account for games where the player left early due to injury. Johnson had two games where injury limited him to a combined 25 snaps. He obviously busted in these weeks, meaning that he only had one week where he received a full workload and wasn’t an expected top-24 receiver.
Very Little Has Changed
In a perfect world, Diontae Johnson would be able to absorb a good portion of Smith-Schuster’s vacated targets and elevate himself into a bonafide star receiver. That obviously won’t happen, but it’s not the end of the world for Johnson.
Even with Smith-Schuster and Claypool, Johnson still managed to lead the team with a staggering 144 targets. He was the alpha throughout the season, even when Claypool established himself as a legitimate NFL talent. From Weeks 8-16 (Week 17 excluded – Pittsburgh had nothing to play for), Claypool was on a 16-game pace of 69 receptions for 780 yards and seven touchdowns on 130 targets. Over that same timeframe, Johnson was on pace for 108 receptions for 1,067 yards and seven touchdowns on a staggering 176 targets. Claypool is a fine number 2, but it’s clear that this passing attack runs through Johnson.
Ben Roethlisberger is probably going to be one of the worst quarterbacks in the league next year, but Johnson already proved he can thrive with a bad quarterback. After all, Roethlisberger was an active liability last year, and Johnson still had a great season that could’ve easily been a lot better.
Pittsburgh couldn’t run the ball at all last year, and they’ll probably try to improve the ground game in 2021. However, it’s hard to imagine this offense having a strong rushing attack. Maurkice Pouncey retired, Matt Fieler signed with the Los Angeles Chargers, Alejandro Villanueva and Zach Banner are free agents, and the Steelers don’t have the money to improve this unit.
They also need a running back, but any ball-carrier won’t stand much of a chance behind this patchwork line. If Pittsburgh wants to move the ball, they’ll need to do it through the air – which means more targets for Diontae Johnson.
The Year 2 and 3 Leap
It’s entirely possible that Claypool makes a year-two leap and earns a larger slice of the pie, but that probably won’t come at Johnson’s expense. Juju Smith-Schuster is clearly the worst of the three receivers, so any increase in Claypool’s volume will probably come at the expense of Smith-Schuster, rather than Johnson.
Additionally, it’s just as likely that Johnson takes a Year 3 leap and puts even more distance between himself and the rest of the depth chart. We’ve seen recent Year 3 breakouts from guys like Chris Godwin and Calvin Ridley, and Johnson could very well be the next guy in line. He’s never going to be cheaper than he is right now, so go out and get Diontae Johnson.
Do you want a copy of my buy-low model and data rankings featuring week-by-week breakdowns, consistency rankings, and expected points? Reach out to @DLPatsThoughts on Twitter
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