Stats That Matter: Diontae Johnson and the NFL’s dropped pass leaders

It should come as no surprise that Diontae Johnson led the NFL in dropped passes as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ speedster bumbled several routine plays in high profile games throughout the season. However, some of the other dropped pass leaders, like Alvin Kamara and Tyreek Hill, may come as much more of a surprise.

Dropped pass leader for 2020 season

Let’s examine the NFL league leaders in dropped passes. We’ll discover what impact they had on the 2020 season and playoffs, and determine what’s in store for players like Diontae Johnson in 2021.

Dropped passes are not an official statistic. So, different stat services provide different totals. Let’s look at the Sports Info Solutions‘ leaderboard first.

Diontae Johnson, Pittsburgh Steelers: 16 dropped passes

If your memory of Diontae Johnson’s season involves lots of really short tosses on shallow drags bouncing off his hands or chest, you aren’t imagining things. Johnson dropped a whopping 14 passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage, per Sports Info Solutions. He dropped 16 overall to lead the league in this unofficial stat.

Jerry Jeudy, Denver Broncos: 14 dropped passes

Rookies tend to drop more passes than veterans for various reasons, so Jerry Jeudy should improve in 2021.

Jeudy’s frequent drops influenced the perception that Drew Lock had an awful 2020 season to a degree. However, we probably shouldn’t get too carried away in that regard because Lock did indeed have a dreadful 2020 season.

Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs: 11 dropped passes

Tyreek Hill also had three drops in the playoffs and Super Bowl. Hill led the NFL with six drops (regular plus postseason) on passes 15-plus yards down the field. There were a few plays among the data where Patrick Mahomes threaded a bomb through multiple defenders and hit a relatively surprised Hill in the hands or face.

Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints: 10 dropped passes

Diontae Johnson may have been the NFL’s dropped pass leader, but it’s Alvin Kamara who dropped an NFL-high five screen passes. Some of them were plays where Drew Brees or Taysom Hill were under extreme duress and just forced the ball to Kamara in situations where a catch may have resulted in a six-yard loss.

Kamara dropped only seven passes in 2018 and 2019 combined. Saints fans shouldn’t worry too much about his hands. They have many, many, MANY other things to worry about this offseason.

Marquise Brown, Russell Gage, CeeDee Lamb, and D.K. Metcalf: 9 dropped passes

CeeDee Lamb, like Jeudy, is a rookie, so a high drop rate should be expected. D.K. Metcalf dropped five passes of 15-plus yards, and you can probably picture every single one of them. Marquise Brown’s inconsistency contributed to Lamar Jackson’s midseason passing struggles. Then again, there was more going on with the Baltimore Ravens’ passing woes than a case of the dropsies.

Russell Gage became the number two option behind Calvin Ridley in the Atlanta Falcons’ passing game when Julio Jones was injured. He mixed impressive highlights with far too many heartbreaking disappointments the way any good Atlanta Falcons player is supposed to.

Pro Football Reference’s NFL dropped pass leader

Let’s switch over to Pro Football Reference, which generally assigns fewer drops than Sports Info Solutions.

Diontae Johnson, Pittsburgh Steelers: 13 dropped passes

Poor guy cannot get a break. Diontae Johnson’s “hands” rating in Madden is going to be so low that if you throw to him, the ball will bounce off him, fly out of your television screen, and hit you in the face.

Evan Engram, New York Giants: 11 dropped passes

Sports Info Solutions only assigned eight dropped passes to Evan Engram. However, he finishes second to Johnson in “Oh my goodness, how on Earth did he not catch that football?” style drops during the 2020 season.

Jerry Jeudy was third on Pro Football Reference’s dropped pass leaders with 10. Behind him in fourth place is Alvin Kamara with nine.

The next tier had players with 8 dropped passes

Pro Football Reference assigned only five drops to Tyreek Hill. This is further evidence that some of his “drops” were miraculous passes that some observers expect no mere mortal to haul in. Therefore, with seven players accounting for eight dropped passes, Hill doesn’t make it in Pro Football Reference’s top 10 of dropped pass leaders.

Hill’s teammate, Mecole Hardman, does make it in the top 10, however. Hardman had a few more Diontae Johnson-style drops. As previously mentioned, CeeDee Lamb is a rookie, as is Tee Higgins.

Ezekiel Elliott on this list counts as part of his official post-contract disappointment year. Stefon Diggs led the NFL with 166 targets, so a few drops are nothing to worry about. Both D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett’s presence on this list is just one more reason why Russell Wilson has joined Aaron Rodgers in that painting of the 1950s diner where all the moody quarterbacks hang out.

What do the 2020 dropped pass leaders mean in practice?

Dropped pass totals fluctuate widely from year to year. Many variables go into each player’s total, from the number of times targeted (see Diggs) to the depth of target (see Hill, Diggs, and Metcalf), to weather conditions, the relative quality of everyone on the field, and sheer luck. Great receivers often show up atop the leaderboard for a year or two simply because they are thrown a high volume of not-perfectly-accurate passes.

Rookies see their totals drop once they adjust to the speed of the NFL, and so forth. This year’s leaders are unlikely to be next year’s leaders. Still, there’s some wisdom we can take away from the 2020 leaderboards.

Evan Engram

Engram is an enigma. He somehow received Pro Bowl recognition despite his drops. This, despite the fact that Giants’ quarterbacks threw six interceptions when targeting him (receivers deserve partial blame for interceptions more often than some fans may think). There are murmurs that the Giants want to trade Engram. In 2021, he will play under his fifth-year rookie option.

Engram has Travis Kelce-level talent. Therefore, some teams are likely to nibble on trade offers in the hopes of pairing him with a better quarterback in a less dysfunctional organization. Yet, that dropped pass total will also have suitors angling for a discount.

Diontae Johnson

Diontae Johnson is the most intriguing individual on the 2020 dropped pass leaders list. The Steelers clearly want to feature him as an underneath and “in space” receiver. Particularly, if JuJu Smith-Schuster departs as a free agent. Johnson could also be a useful security blanket for a younger quarterback if the Steelers move on from Ben Roethlisberger.

However, a receiver who drops almost 15% of his targets will inevitably fall off the back of the game plan. Based on how the 2021 offseason and preseason (let’s hope there is one) go, Johnson could turn into a 100-catch, 1,200-yard weapon. On the contrary, he could wind up buried on the bench as the Steelers rebuild their offense around Chase Claypool and the running game.

Mecole Hardman

Hardman is also worth mentioning. In particular, because of his high drop rate (per Pro Football Reference) coupled with three 2020 fumbles on a relatively low number of targets and touches.

The Chiefs are supposed to be loaded with weapons. However, when you get past Hill and Kelce, they find themselves relying on often-injured Sammy Watkins, a revolving door of running backs, journeyman backups like Byron Pringle, and the talented but inconsistent WRs in Hardman and Demarcus Robinson.

Super Bowl LV taught us what happens when Mahomes is forced to count on his tertiary weapons against a top opponent. Hardman is billed as a mini-Tyreek, but he needs to take much of the “bust” out of his boom-or-bust style if the Chiefs hope to remain among the NFL’s top Super Bowl contenders.

Who had the fewest drops in 2020?

Enough about the guys who dropped gobs of passes. What about the receivers who dropped the fewest passes?

As you might expect, there were lots of players across the NFL in 2020 who were only thrown a half-dozen passes and didn’t drop any of them. However, one player saw 150 targets by a pair of very inconsistent quarterbacks and did not drop a single pass.

If you guessed Chicago Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson right away, you are correct. Give yourself a pat on the back!

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