You already know the obvious rookie stars from Week 1. Marquise Brown and Terry McLaurin were en fuego, propelling the savvy (desperate) owners who started them Week 1 to big scores. Other high profile names have been scrutinized ad infinitum at this point, with the primetime performance by David Montgomery under the microscope and numerous analyses of Miles Sanders and the Eagles’ backfield split.
There are a few rookies that had quietly impressive starts to the season that also need to be on our radar as potential trade targets or even waiver pickups in shallower formats.
Three receptions for 25 yards doesn’t look all that exciting on paper, but that Diontae Johnson was part of the rotation at all as a rookie is a great sign. He may have been out-snapped and out-targeted by all four other Pittsburgh wide receivers, but he was also the only rookie of the bunch, playing his first game in the NFL. JuJu Smith-Schuster was targeted zero times in his debut back in 2017 and played behind the immortal Eli Rogers. Of course, Ben Roethlisberger attempting 47 passes helped Johnson’s numbers, but it’s not like all of his targets were in garbage time, with two of the five coming in the first half.
This isn’t so much about what Johnson did in his first game though as what his teammates failed to do. Donte Moncrief, on his third team in as many years, was absolutely dreadful, somehow turning 10 targets into a mere seven yards. While we can’t overreact to a one-game sample size, we’ve got a pretty long track record now of Moncrief’s inefficient play.
Also playing ahead of Johnson was another player on his third team in as many years, Ryan Switzer. While he’s never had the opportunity to disappoint to the same level that Moncrief has, Switzer has nevertheless failed to impress with the opportunity he has been given thus far.
And while it’s not necessarily fair to James Washington to rag on his poor Fantasy Points Over Expectation after just one season, I’m going to point it out anyway here.
I’m not ready to throw Washington on the scrap heap just yet since we’re only looking at one season, and the nature of his targets, primarily deep contested opportunities, lend themselves to more variance than the shorter variety. However, we can’t completely ignore an inefficient rookie year, as Blair Andrews has shown that rookie efficiency is predictive of future performance. The fact that Washington couldn’t capitalize on soft coverage while playing alongside two of the best WRs in the game in 2018 should be a cause for concern.
Perhaps a bigger reason not to see Washington as direct competition for Johnson is the aforementioned depth of his targets. The Steelers have been using Washington as a deep threat, a role he specialized in during his college career, and that may leave him pigeonholed as a role player at best.
So that brings us back to Johnson. Let’s get the negatives out of the way first:
- Played in the MAC for Toledo
- Older prospect due to a injury redshirt injury during his sophomore season
- Production declined precipitously in final season
- On the small side and not impressively fast
These are all reasons you could get Johnson in the third or fourth round of your rookie draft.
So why am I optimistic about his chances?
- Dominant sophomore season prior to QB change in final season
- Declared with eligibility remaining, which is important for WRs
- High draft capital1
- Special teams production, which is a predictor of WR success
- Strong score in Travis May’s Adjusted Production Index
- Size, speed, and athleticism are nearly identical to Antonio Brown, so still sufficient to compete at the NFL level2
Look guys, it’s simple math. There are four bullet points under the negatives and six under the positives. Even my first-grader can tell you that’s a win right there.
It may take a while before Johnson can become his team’s WR2 behind Smith-Schuster, but it could also happen sooner than we think. The Steelers apparently had a first-round grade on Johnson and while many felt they reached for him with the second pick of the third round, the late Steelers WR coach Darryl Drake said that he sniped Brice Arians on Johnson like that guy who is always two picks ahead of you in your fantasy drafts:
“I know for a fact Tampa Bay was going to take him on their next pick, and I got cussed out by the Tampa Bay head coach who called me some names for taking him because that was his guy,” Drake said, via Jim Wexell of 247Sports. “We all talk, receiver coaches talk. He was the one guy everybody talked about, and there wasn’t one guy who didn’t like this guy.”
It’s clear the organization thinks highly of him, and his playing time has the potential to increase quickly if his competition doesn’t step up their games. Johnson said in interviews leading up to Week 2 that the Steelers “have me in the game plan a little more this week.” Smith-Schuster also confirmed, “He’s been ready. He’ll be getting time this week. He’ll play more this week.”
Johnson getting usage in his first game, along with the underperformance of his teammates, has me more bullish than ever on his chances of becoming the Steelers WR2 sooner rather than later.
While Johnson started generating some hype thanks to his early draft selection, Preston Williams, as an undrafted free agent, has had to rely mostly on buzz from training camp and the preseason. That doesn’t mean he came out of nowhere though, as his final season at Colorado State was dominant. He was considered by some to be among the most talented WRs in a talented class.
So why wasn’t he drafted? Failed drug tests, a domestic violence issue that precluded a combine invite, and an uninspiring pro day prevented teams from wanting to expend any draft capital on him. However a strong preseason and the trade of Kenny Stills had Williams lining up as one of the starters for the Dolphins in Week 1, and he managed to score Miami’s only TD, with a beautiful toe-tapping grab in the back of the end zone.
It’s always hard to value a player with a history of off field issues, as we’ve seen many such players fail to put their past behind them once they reach the NFL. However there have been success stories too, and Williams is still cheap enough3 that it’s worth it to take a chance on the 6-foot-5 rookie stepping into a team without a lot of proven options at the position.
Week 1 showed that Williams should have a chance to be a major part of the offense right away, and he may even be worth a look in redraft leagues. It’s unlikely the Dolphins will play that poorly every week, and they should remain in plenty of pass-heavy game scripts.
He may have had just one target in his first game, but Miles Boykin made it count, turning his lone look into a five-yard TD.
With all the buzz around D.K. Metcalf, it was easy to miss that Boykin was actually the real WR star of the combine. Metcalf may have beat Boykin with his straight line speed and impressive bench press, but Boykin’s 4.42 40-yard dash at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds was still good enough for an elite Freak Score. Maybe more importantly, Boykin absolutely slaughtered Metcalf in the agility drills.
While we’re not in the habit here at RotoViz of getting all hot and bothered about athleticism for WRs, Boykin played in such an anemic passing offense in college that it’s difficult to gauge his true potential as a pass catcher based on his production.
Again, the biggest reason for optimism in Week 1 isn’t even necessarily what Boykin did, it’s what his teammates managed to do. Fears that the Baltimore passing offense led by Lamar Jackson would be untouchable for fantasy purposes seem to have been allayed after a monster week against the Dolphins. While Miami’s poor defense certainly contributed to Jackson’s career day throwing the ball, the revamped scheme that Greg Roman promised in the offseason seems to be in full effect. The Ravens could still end up with the fewest passing plays in the league, but it seems likely they won’t be nearly as stingy with the targets as they were in the second half of 2018.
With a wholly uninspiring WR depth chart in front of him, Boykin and fellow rookie Brown should have every opportunity to work their way into starting roles for years to come. Right after Jackson’s career day may not be the best time to target Boykin in a trade, but he needs to be on your radar as a player who could eventually break out if given sufficient opportunity.