Breakout or Fakeout: Diontae Johnson

Dwight Peebles

In the ‘Breakout or Fakeout‘ series, we identify unproven players whose values are more reliant upon their potential than their production. Will they step up and become must-start fantasy assets? Or are they players to avoid? Read on to find out…

One of the bright spots in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ up-and-down 2019 was the performance of rookie Diontae Johnson. The Toledo wide receiver was selected with the second pick of the third round last season. The Steelers likely planned to ease him in but he was thrust into a prominent role. He responded with a stellar first season, but what is next for Johnson? Was this a sign of bigger things to come?


Toledo is mired in the MAC conference and doesn’t have a good track record of producing NFL talent. In 2017, Johnson catapulted his name into draft consideration with a season of nearly 1,300 receiving yards and 13 scores. A quiet 2018 season didn’t help his draft stock. The Steelers saw something they liked and drafted him much earlier than anyone expected.

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Stats courtesy of Sports Reference.

After the draft, our draft team dove into the rookie and outlined a path for him to be successful right out of the gate. Johnson has an explosive first step and shifts direction efficiently, losing little speed and without extra movements. He was incredibly dangerous after the catch and in space – very difficult to track down and drop. There was a lot to like and the Steelers also have a good history of drafting receivers.

The Steelers suffered the loss of their franchise quarterback in week two. The rest of the season the offense was either in the hands of Mason Rudolph (eight games) or Devlin Hodges (six games). After the Antonio Brown debacle, the wide receiver corps was in flux all season as well. Johnson responded by cracking the starting lineup and leading the Steelers in targets, receiving touchdowns, and was second in receiving yardage behind second-year wideout James Washington. JuJu Smith-Schuster was supposed to step in as the new WR1 and struggled.

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Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.


Roethlisberger returns to the lineup and even at the ripe young age of 38, is still a huge upgrade for the Steelers offense. In the previous five seasons before 2019, the Steelers offense ranked second, third, seventh, third, and fourth in total yards before falling to thirtieth in 2019. Those five seasons included Brown and Le’Veon Bell mostly but Ben was the quarterback who helmed those proficient, dangerous offenses.

The Steelers return Johnson, Washington, and Smith-Schuster but also added Chase Claypool in the draft and Eric Ebron through free agency. The dangerous Anthony McFarland was also added – he is a running back who could provide a jolt in the passing game from the backfield as well. The offense is full of weapons and should easily climb into the stratosphere of elite offenses once again.

Despite his diminutive size and production in college out of the slot, the Steelers lined Johnson up in the slot on only 33% of his snaps per Football Outsiders. Smith-Schuster maintained the lead slot role, running 77.1% of his snaps from the slot position. Washington even ran 48% of his snaps from the slot. The Steelers used a variety of positioning to create mismatches and find what worked best with their unseasoned quarterbacks. Per the DLF Snap Count App, you can see the exact breakdown of snaps in 2019 for the new trio of Steeler wideouts.

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Even with the additions, Johnson could see an uptick in targets. Roethlisberger elevates the offense and allows them to be on the field more. The quality of his targets should be better, and there will be more opportunities to score. The case for a breakout in 2020 is a strong one and his ADP has been increasing since September of 2019.

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As good as the offense and Big Ben have been in the past, this isn’t the same offense as far as talent and it’s not even close. Over the past 18 months, we have forgotten how good of an NFL receiver Brown was. What he brought to the offense is not easily replaced and he led the receiver corps for nearly a decade. Bell fit the offense perfectly and would run circles around any running back on the Steelers current roster. They all worked together seamlessly and the offensive coordinator for most of those seasons, Todd Haley, is also long gone.

Roethlisberger may not have the arm talent he has had in the past and may favor the short target opportunities. He has lost 22 games to injuries over the past five seasons and has historically taken a beating when on the field. Hopefully the line gives his time and limits the hits he takes. They do have a strong offensive line, ranked ninth by Pro Football Focus for 2020.

Roethlisberger has favored slot receivers in the past, targeting the slot receiver on 57.4% of his nearly 500 passes in 2018, again per Football Outsiders. This could mean a return to dominance for Smith-Schuster, he was the recipient of 166 targets from the quarterback in 2018.

Ebron could also gather some short targets and give them a dangerous tight end the team has been searching for. Claypool is a big receiver and more in the mold of Ebron, and could be worked into the offense to strengthen the middle and see red-zone opportunities. Washington gives the team a deep threat to extend the field.

So where does all of this leave Johnson in the pecking order? Maybe what we saw in 2019 is the ceiling. There are a lot of mouths to feed in Pittsburgh.


The former Rockets receiver should see an uptick in targets but I don’t think a substantial one. It’s kind of a cop-out but I lean more to the side of fakeout, simply because of the amount of talented players who will want the ball in the Steel City. I don’t believe he will get worse but I don’t see him taking the step forward some are hoping he will take. So not a total fakeout but not a breakout either.

Johnson is talented and fun with the ball in his hands, the type of player we route extra for to succeed. He works hard and keeps his nose clean. What we saw in 2019 will be the floor but I don’t see the ceiling much higher. This makes him a hard pass at his current ADP for me.

Verdict: Fakeout

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