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Diontae Johnson’s Historical Comps Indicate He’s on the Verge of a Sophomore Breakout

Diontae Johnson had an incredible rookie season. There’s no other way to put it. Although his end-of-year numbers — 59 receptions for 680 yards and five scores — don’t really jump off the page, the Toledo product managed to post positive fantasy points over expectation (FPOE) despite playing in one of the worst situations imaginable.

Before the season, it looked like one of the best possible situations for a rookie WR, as the Steelers’ pass-heavy offense lacked a proven WR2 behind JuJu Smith-Schuster. Unfortunately, a Ben Roethlisberger injury derailed what likely would have been one of the most potent aerial attacks in the league. Still, their third-round pick was a beacon of hope in an otherwise dreary campaign. Among rookie WRs who played six or more games, Johnson finished:

  • Fifth in targets per game and receptions per game
  • Eighth in receiving yards per game
  • Ninth in fantasy points per game
  • Seventh in expected points per game (reEP)
  • 11th in per-game efficiency (reFPOE)

What’s more, his 1.0 reFPOE per game led all Steelers’ WRs — a critical distinction given what Blair Andrews has shown about the importance of rookie-year efficiency at WR.

 
Player reFPOE per Game
Diontae Johnson 1.0
James Washington 0.7
JuJu Smith-Schuster 0.0
Ryan Switzer -1.8
Johnny Holton -2.4
Donte Moncrief -5.1

Heading into his sophomore season, Johnson will be in a better position with Roethlisberger (hopefully) healthy. He’s currently being drafted as the WR48 in early best ball drafts. What can you expect from him in Year 2?

Historical Comps

Using inputs of volume, production, efficiency, age, draft position, size, and games played, I used the RotoViz Screener to identify players who looked similar to Johnson after their rookie season.

For a player being drafted as late as Johnson, it’s hard to think of a more impressive list. Jarius Wright has been nothing more than a journeyman wideout, but the other four guys on the list are above-average NFL contributors. T.Y. Hilton, Tyler Lockett, and John Brown all have multiple 200-point seasons, while Sterling Shepard has come close to that mark in his two healthy seasons. Although Johnson doesn’t have the draft capital of some of the flashier names from this year’s rookie WR class, he compares favorably to other successful WRs who slipped past the first two rounds.

There are some stinkers after that — Titus Young and Chris Givens are the next two names on the list — but Johnson’s comps generally portray him in a positive light.

It’s a good sign for Johnson’s career prospects that he is being mentioned in the same breath as these guys, but we’re mostly interested in how he’ll do next year. To predict that, it makes sense to look at how his comps produced in Year 2.

How Did They Do in Year 2?

Very well, to put it simply. Hilton and Brown both topped 1,000 yards (and finished as the WR19 and WR26, respectively), while Shepard was a top-24 wideout on a per-game basis. Lockett and Wright weren’t fantasy-relevant — it took the former four seasons to become a viable fantasy option — but three of the five guys were strong contributors in Year 2. At his current ADP of WR48, Johnson isn’t absolutely killing you even if his sophomore year resembles Lockett’s, and the return is massive if he can follow in the footsteps of Shepard, Hilton, and Brown.

Big Ben’s Much-Needed Return

It’s important to note that Johnson was successful as a rookie even though he was catching passes from Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. The Steelers’ team WR reEP and reFPOE tanked last year without Roethlisberger, so you’ll want to monitor his health throughout the offseason to ensure Johnson will catch passes from a competent quarterback.

 
Year Total WR reEP Total WR reFPOE
20151 670.0 96.6
2016 562.9 61.6
2017 611.5 79.6
2018 736.6 20.3
2019 473.1 -22.7

Assuming Roethlisberger is back, Johnson looks like a bargain at his current ADP. Although he’ll have to beat out James Washington — whom yours truly wrote about recently as a WR to not forget about — for the WR2 job, you would be wise to bet on the player who was more efficient earlier in his career. I expect Johnson’s ADP to rise throughout the offseason barring negative camp reports about him or Roethlisberger, so he’s someone you will want to target in early best ball drafts. If he can secure the WR2 role in Pittsburgh — and his comps indicate he has the profile to do so — he could be a league-winner.

Image Credit: Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Diontae Johnson.

  1. Note that Roethlisberger played just 12 games in 2015.  (back)

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