Diontae Johnson Fantasy Outlook: Can Johnson Return to His 2021 Form?

Pittsburgh Steelers WR Diontae Johnson is looking to bounce back after a brutal fantasy football season. Should you be comfortable investing?

Diontae Johnson had a historically odd 2022 season, racking up 147 targets (seventh-most) but not being one of the 263 players to catch a touchdown pass. Let me say that again. Seventh in targets and zero trips to the end zone. It wasn’t for a lack of effort (18th in red-zone looks, sixth in end-zone looks), things just didn’t pan out for the 27-year-old in Kenny Pickett’s first season, and Johnson was a massive fantasy football bust.

Was he unlucky, or is he simply not destined for strong fantasy numbers in this system?

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Diontae Johnson’s Fantasy Outlook

Many teams enter 2023 with plenty of moving pieces, but not the Pittsburgh Steelers. They did little in the draft that will have an impact on the fantasy world, and whenever this version of Allen Robinson II is the primary offensive add, you know things were quiet. That is to say that if Johnson is going to bounce back, he’s going to have to do so in a very similar situation that he failed in last season.

So what happened in 2022? His aDOT spiked (+20.7% from his career rate prior) in Kenny Pickett’s rookie season, and that resulted in the lowest catch rate of his career (58.5%).

Being targeted deeper downfield is supposed to result in an increase in per-catch upside, but with Pickett going through some growing pains, that was not the case. Stay patient and trust the process on this front.

Another encouraging note is the fact that 9.5% of Johnson’s targets last season came in the end zone. Yes, I get that he managed to catch exactly zero of them, but for those of us trying to project forward, that’s a big plus (career rate prior: 4.4%).

But not all signs point up. Johnson ran 614 routes last season, the exact same number he ran in 2021, but his yardage total dipped by 279 yards. His 1.44 yards per route run were easily a career-low and 19% below his rate through his first three seasons.

We can all preach regression in the touchdown department, but if Johnson’s per-route efficiency doesn’t increase in a significant way, he’s going to struggle to offer consistent value.

Can Johnson Rebound From a Down 2022?

At the end of the day, there are more signs pointing in the right direction than not. Johnson scored seven times in 2020 and eight times in 2021, so if we are willing to assume that Pickett takes the step forward in Year 2 that many young signal-callers do, Johnson should approach those numbers.

It’s also reasonable to think his aDOT drops back to his career average, thus spiking his catch rate and making him a consistent fantasy contributor.

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Why am I so comfortable in doing so? Simple. Confirmation bias … or whatever the opposite of that is. Here are the 2022 splits on balls thrown more than 10 yards downfield.

George Pickens:

  • 48 targets
  • 26 catches
  • 623 yards

Diontae Johnson:

  • 56 targets
  • 22 catches
  • 379 yards

As Pickett gains comfort in the NFL and in this offense, I expect he plays to his teammates’ individual strengths and … well, I think the data speaks for itself.

Should Fantasy Managers Draft Johnson at His ADP?

We have a weird number of receivers who are the WR1 on their team but are anything but safe fantasy options. Johnson certainly profiles as such a player, as do Michael Pittman Jr., Mike Evans, and Marquise Brown — three receivers going in the same general range as Johnson this season. I prefer the Steelers WR to all of them.

Brandon Aiyuk was a fringe fantasy WR2 a season ago with a 78-1,015-8 receiving line … is there any reason Johnson can’t do that this year? Those numbers would make him a profit at his current ADP, and he pretty clearly has more catch upside than that line projects.

Johnson is your #TrustTheProcess pick of the season, as I believe he offers a higher production floor than just about everyone in this range, and that makes him a player I find myself landing on regularly.

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