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Diontae Johnson: Breakout or Break-Ouch?


Every fantasy analyst and their dog seems to have Diontae Johnson on their 2020 breakout list. Despite last year’s accomplishments, which prime him for a breakout campaign in 2020, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t underwhelmed by my further statistical and film analysis.

The 2019 third-round pick managed to have a very successful rookie campaign in what seemed to be the worst possible scenario for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense. Coming out of the NFL Draft, Johnson was viewed by many as an unnecessary selection that would be clearly buried on the Pittsburgh depth chart. If it was not for the Steelers' track record of finding WR value in drafts, he very well may not have been selected in any fantasy rookie drafts. Add the signing of Donte Moncrief and the loss of Antonio Brown, outside of JuJu Smith-Schuster, the passing offense seemed very underwhelming for fantasy. The icing on the cake was 2018’s pass attempt leader and 5,000-yard quarterback Ben Roethlisberger going down to a severe elbow injury in week two. Things could not have gotten worse for this offense to start in 2019.

Despite the odds, Johnson faced this adversity and pulled off a very successful rookie campaign. Clearly, Johnson is a talented player, however, in this article, I intend to further examine the four main reasons for the breakout: Separation, Quarterback Play, Athletic Measurables, and the return of Big Ben. I understand that my conclusion leads to a very unpopular opinion, but sometimes these are the perfect times to Zig while the rest of your league Zags.

 

Separation

Probably the most popular statistic for the Johnson hype is his separation ability. Next Gen stats defines separation as the amount of yards between the receiver or tight end and the nearest defender at the time of completion or incompletion. Separation is usually created through proficient route-running, agile cuts, and speed. Therefore, the fact that Johnson led all WRs in separation with 3.6 yards is an impressive feat. I would like to address that this number may vary from the commonly cited 2.39 yards of separation, however, regardless of the number, all rankings have him leading receivers. Therefore, if you are consistent with your source, the same conclusions can be drawn. I will be using Next Gen stats 3.6 yards, as they rank separation for all players and positions.

Now, time for the important question, what does separation really tell us about NFL production and therefore fantasy value?

Separation is a very hit-or-miss statistic. To emphasize this, the leader in separation for all pass catchers in 2019 was none other than 33-year-old fantasy tight end #21, Jimmy Graham (3.9). For WR, here are some of the names inside of the top 10 for separation last season: Albert Wilson (2nd), Cooper Kupp (7th), and Geronimo Allison (9th). To relate this to fantasy finish (Half PPR), only three of the top 10 receivers in separation finished inside of the top 40. These receivers were Robert Woods (5th), Kupp (7th),  and Tyler Lockett (10th). The fantasy production and separation correlation was mimicked in 2018 where three WRs had 3.6 or greater yards of separation per target. Those players were Chris Hogan (4.1), Chester Rogers and Adam Humphries (both at 3.6).  Clearly, this statistic has a large variance in WR caliber. 

I believe that the emphasis on Johnson's separation ability and fantasy production correlation to be thoroughly exaggerated. Having said that, separation is more related to a player’s individual ability rather than fantasy production. After all, in order to produce for fantasy, the ball needs to get to the WR. You can have an NFL record in separation, but if Mason Rudolph is throwing you the ball, there may be no chance that you come down with it. This leads to my second statistical analysis: Quarterback Play.

 

Quarterback

It is no surprise that the Steelers QB play was wildly mediocre at best. Once Big Ben went down, the team had to scramble to find a replacement. Unfortunately, neither 2018’s 76th draft pick Mason Rudolph nor undrafted free-agent Delvin Hodges were up to the challenge. One of the more impressive storylines in 2019 was the Steelers turning their defense around to become one of the best in the NFL and almost riding it to a playoff berth. It was clear that if they had a functional QB, playoffs would have been very realistic. Therefore, what Diontae Johnson did with mediocre quarterback play was definitely head-turning. Only 72.8% of Johnson’s targets were deemed catchable which was 81st in the NFL. On those targets, he caught 91% of them. On the surface, this is impressive. However, teammate James Washington had a catchable pass on 65.8% of targets, which placed him 99th. Despite this difference in catchability, Johnson was only able to average 1.71 fantasy points per target, to Washington’s 1.69. 

One of the most common comparisons to emphasize Johnson’s success is to compare his 2019 production with both Juju Smith-Schuster and Washington. This comparison can be very misleading. Yes, neither Smith-Schuster nor Washington appeared to have taken advantage of the hole left by Antonio Brown, however, both were schemed as very different receivers than Johnson. It is fairly common knowledge that bad quarterbacks like to throw short and avoid taking the big play shot. This may be due to the coach’s scheme or inability to throw an accurate deep ball under pressure. Either way, the tight end and short receiver routes tend to receive an uptick in targets with back-up quarterbacks, and the 2019 Steelers were no different. Washington finished last season fifth in the league for average air yards per target (15.6). In comparison, Juju was 71st (9.6) and Johnson finished 83rd (9). Based on these air yards, the theory of back-up quarterbacks being more accurate throwing short is supported. In 2019 Johnson finished as the 54th WR in target accuracy compared to Juju (71st) and Washington (96th).

If you look at the average quarterback rating on these targets, the theory of back-up quarterbacks continues. Passer rating (QBR) is calculated using a quarterback’s passing attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns, and interceptions. Therefore, QBR can be impacted by receiver ability, but is primarily a result of the quarterback’s play.  With this rating, you can determine the average QBR when targeting certain receivers. Of all receivers, Rudolph and Hodges carried Juju to the 82nd best QBR average when targeted (79.1), and Washington the 84th (78.8). To put this in perspective, in 2019 the entire NFL had an average QBR of 90.5, which was the second-highest season average in NFL history. 

Taking this into consideration, Diontae Johnson had the 43rd QBR for receivers at 95.4. Although 43rd is not inspiring, for poor QB play, that is well above the league average and the QBR of both Juju and Washington. In addition, Ben Roethlisberger's career QBR average is 94, and in 2018 (when he went for 1426yds) Juju’s average QBR per target was only 2% better than Johnson’s in 2019 (97.6). Yes, Johnson’s QB play was poor, but in the big picture, it really was not that bad, finishing above both the league average and Ben’s career average.  With his short depth of target and QBR, it was no wonder he was able to outperform the likes of Juju Smith-Schuster and James Washington. 

 

Athletic Measurables

Diontae Johnson looked good, don’t get me wrong. Leading all rookies for receptions is an impressive feat, even if it was only by one reception. Many people like to hang their hat on this reception statistic, however, Johnson had 59 receptions and both DK Metcalf and Terry McLaurin had 58 with Deebo Samuel at 57. Either way, this is a very good rookie group to be a part of. From a production stand-point, it can be noted that both Metcalf and McLaurin cracked the 900-yd and seven-TD mark compared to Johnson’s 680 yards and five TD; but you can’t take away the fact that Johnson was able to catch one more pass and take the title of rookie reception leader.

Johnson also managed to score 47% of his fantasy points in three games last season. Thankfully, the discussion for next season is moving Juju back to the slot while Johnson, Washington, and Chase Claypool remain out wide. Johnson only lined up in the slot on 8% of his snaps, meaning that he should be able to continue to find fantasy success (even if it’s only in three games). 

Production aside, Johnson looked like a talented receiver, with sharp routes, good hands, and impressive speed. Based on the film, you would never guess that PlayerProfiler only has him above the 36th percentile in only one athletic category (40 yard dash time) and as low as 6th percentile in another category (catch radius).

These mediocre athletic traits have been displayed to be very similar to the likes of Antonio Brown. Although this storyline would make for a perfect silver lining, it is most implausible that the next below-average NFL athlete the Steelers draft can become the infamous 2010 6th round pick, Antonio Brown. If it were not for this comparison, these measurements would be very underwhelming. 

 

Big Ben Roethlisberger

Big Ben is back… we think. Although Roethlisberger has claimed to be throwing “pain-free”, the procedure Roethlisberger went through is very serious. This elbow injury is fairly common for MLB pitchers, where their average recovery time is 17 months. When the season starts, it will be just under 12 months since the injury and procedure. After all, we have barely seen Johnson play with Roethlisberger. Regardless, the addition of Big Ben (in any condition) should instantly improve Johnson’s fantasy production. The question is now, what kind of Big Ben will we see this season?

The last Ben Roethlisberger we saw was a monster for fantasy purposes. Throwing 34 touchdowns, passing for 5129yds, and even rumbling for 98 rushing yards. Of course, the surrounding cast benefited from this, having both Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster finishing inside the top 10 with 1200+ yards and 7+ touchdowns each. However, in the years prior, has Ben supported multiple receivers? Not necessarily. If you look before 2018, Roethlisberger has not had a second receiver with more than 920yds since 2011. If you take out Juju getting 917 yds in 2017, he has not had a second receiver with over 800 yards in that time.

I posted a poll on Twitter (@YoitsEllis_FF) asking if people believed Johnson would have over 1,000 yards:

Of the votes, 34% believed he would do so, however, historically the odds are in favor of the under and the 66% of voters. I understand that the observation can be made that when Roethlisberger has had two very talented receivers he has been able to sustain both in the top 24. However, I am not crowning Johnson with the talent of Smith-Schuster, Mike Wallace, or Brown after one season. Although it can happen, once again, we don’t know which Roethlisberger will be returning from the major elbow surgery. Add in an aging offensive line and increase in quality weapons (Eric Ebron, Washington, Chase Claypool), it wouldn’t be a surprise if they never get back to the production of the Killer Bees days. 

 

What to do in 2020

My colleague, Jason Katz, outlines how impressive Johnson’s campaign was in his 2020 Outlook and claims that he is fantasy’s most well-kept secret. Although the hype has been catching on, Katz outlines that reaching for Johnson before the seventh round in redraft is well worth your time. Statistically, the breakout appears logical. After overcoming all the obstacles I previously mentioned, he managed to lead the league in many different categories: rookie receptions, average separation, and fumbles for the receiver position (5). He also led the Steelers in receiving touchdowns (5).

According to Fantasy Football Calculator, in half PPR leagues, Johnson is going as pick 10.09 which is the 46th receiver off the board. Although it may not seem like it, I don’t mind this value for the possible opportunity. However, I have seen some expert mock drafts (most recently by the Fantasy Footballers on June 17th) where he has been taken as early as 8.01. Considering receivers such as Brandin Cooks, Michael Gallup, and Tyler Boyd all have seventh-round ADP, if Diontae Johnson continues to climb up the draft boards (which I’m sure he will), I would highly recommend avoiding him at that price. 

I have Johnson outside my top-36 receivers for this year. The jump from 43rd in 2019, to the top 24 for any player is massive. Let alone, someone with as many question marks as Johnson (quarterback, team situation, measurables, etc.). If you are targeting upside I would much rather take James Washington, who is currently going undrafted, as he has higher draft capital, more stereotypical X receiver attributes (5’11”, 213lbs, with a 97.5-speed score), experience playing with Big Ben, and is going into the all-important third year.

If not Washington, I don’t mind gambling on the physical prowess (and highest NFL draft capital of the four), Canadian rookie Chase Claypool with your final pick of the draft. For redraft, I personally want to warn people to avoid Johnson in round 8 or earlier.

For dynasty, at the end of the day, regardless of what you think about Johnson’s ability, the Steelers are on the verge of an offensive slide with the injury and age questions around Ben Roethlisberger, an aging O line, and competing in an up and coming division; I would happily abandon ship and sell Johnson for an early second-rounder. After all, Diontae Johnson is older than fourth-year receiver Juju Smith-Schuster.

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FAB Bidding - Week 7 Waiver Wire Targets

Whether it's injuries, bye-week blues, or simply poor performance, we've got the waiver-wire cure...but it just might cost you! Alongside our famous waiver wire pickups list and our weekly waiver wire columns by position, this column focuses on suggested waiver wire bidding percentages for fantasy football owners in leagues using a Free Agent Budget (FAB). In... Read More


Waiver Wire Express - Week 7 Lightning Round

Week 6 was relatively healthy and had no coronavirus delays, so let's just take a moment to bask in that. That said, we still saw Miles Sanders (knee) and Zach Ertz (ankle) go down, while Mark Ingram (ankle) has a bye to get healthy. Week 7 byes are Baltimore, Indianapolis, Miami, and Minnesota. Let's get... Read More


Running Back Waiver Wire Pickups - Week 7

Fantasy GMs are to be commended for rising to the unique challenges that have unfolded during this regular season. Injuries to critical players is an unwelcome reality that occurs every year. This is also the case for backs that were expected to operate as RB1s, but have been relegated to committees. However, this season has... Read More


Wide Receiver Waiver Wire Pickups - Week 7

Six weeks of NFL football are behind us, aside from a pair of Monday games, including a late afternoon game between the Bills and the Chiefs. In terms of wide receiver production this week, we didn't have the huge breakouts like we had in Week 5. Chase Claypool didn't score four touchdowns. In fact, only... Read More


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Of the 1,015 hitters sampled(1) between 2015 and 2019, there were only 14 instances of hitters making more productive contact against pitches outside of the strike zone than against pitches inside of the strike zone based on xwOBAcon. Based on the same sample, the average hitter was a whopping .116 points better against pitches inside... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 23rd, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 23rd, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Lineup Order Risers and Fallers: AL West 2020 Review

It’s the offseason and there are about to be a bunch of moving parts. This allows for speculation in terms of players gaining or losing playing time, moving up or down a batting order and much more. The idea here is to highlight some lineup situations for each team and some potential winners or losers... Read More


2021 1st & 2nd Year Players with James Anderson - Benched with Bubba (Episode 317)

Bubba (@bdentrek) is joined by James Anderson (@RealJRAnderson) on episode 317. The guys will go over 30+ first and second-year players. They will discuss their current ADP's in the 2 Early Mocks, what to expect of the players in 2021, and much more. They also go over some listener questions, compare Juan Soto to Mike... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 21st, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 21st, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 20th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 20th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Bubba and Bat Flip 54: 2 Early Mocks APD Player Debates - Benched with Bubba (Episode 316)

Bubba (@bdentrek) is joined by Bat Flip Crazy (@BatFlipCrazy) to take a deeper look at the 2 Early Mocks ADP. They go over some of the positions and look at players with similar ADPs and debate. Going around the diamond discussing some players people are high on and some they are down on with a... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 18th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 18th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 17th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 17th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


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Statcast Season Review: 2020 Barrel Leaders (Hitters)

The 2020 MLB season will always be one for the record books, even if everything that took place will have multiple asterisks attached to it. Evaluating Statcast numbers is a nice way to find hot and cold hitters, as well as underachievers and overachievers. Now that the regular season is over, let's reflect on the... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 16th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 16th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 15th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 15th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 14th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 14th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Bubba and Bat Flip 53: 2 Early Mocks APD Trends & More - Benched with Bubba (Episode 315)

Bubba (@bdentrek) is joined by Bat Flip Crazy (@BatFlipCrazy) to take a deeper look at the 2 Early Mocks ADP. They dig into trends, some interesting risers/fallers, and much more. They also go over some listener questions at the end to keep the Fantasy Baseball information coming even in the offseason. Be sure to subscribe... Read More