One of my favorite situations in dynasty fantasy football is when two similarly valued players are on the same team at the same position. So often, each player has his supporters in the dynasty community, and there’s a debate about which player should carry more value. I want to examine a few of these situations, breaking them down from statistical, ADP/trade value, and future situation angles. I did this series for the last two years, so if you want to know what these articles are like, I provided the links at the bottom of this page.
This time, I want to look at a pair of receivers on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Last year, I did an article on George Pickens vs. Chase Claypool, and it’s safe to say Pickens easily won that battle. Eventually, the Steelers traded Claypool to the Bears, leaving Pickens as a primary offensive weapon alongside Diontae Johnson and Pat Freiermuth. However, there’s now a new battle for supremacy between Johnson and Pickens for the Steelers’ WR1 spot and in dynasty value. Let’s jump into it!
Of course, both players have played for the Steelers their entire careers, although they have completely different production histories. So let’s start by looking at Johnson, focusing on his three years before Pickens’s arrival.
Chart courtesy of Pro Football Reference
The Steelers drafted Johnson in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, where he joined a receiving corps with dynasty superstar Juju Smith-Schuster and 2018 second-round pick James Washington. They also had then-relevant tight end Vance McDonald and free-agent signing Donte Moncrief as competition.
Despite the robust set of receiving options, Johnson led the team in targets, receptions, and touchdowns in the Steelers’ messy 2019 season. Smith-Schuster struggled with various injuries, and longtime quarterback Ben Roethlisberger barely played after hurting his elbow. After 2019, it wasn’t clear whether Johnson or Smith-Schuster was the superior wide receiver, and the Steelers further muddied the water by selecting Claypool in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
In 2020, all three Steelers’ receivers had a strong year. Smith-Schuster regained some of his previous form, while Claypool broke out as a rookie, scoring nine receiving touchdowns. Even though Roethlisberger was well past his prime, he threw over 600 passes, allowing all three wide receivers to finish in the top-22 for fantasy football.
Unfortunately, that success did not continue into 2021 for all three players, as Claypool majorly regressed, and Smith-Schuster missed most of the season with injuries. By this point, the Steelers seemed committed to Johnson as their top wide receiver, and they also added Pat Freiermuth to siphon targets. Additionally, Najee Harris saw 94 targets and 74 receptions in 2021, as Roethlisberger’s noodle arm could no longer throw downfield effectively.
However, over Johnson’s stretch from 2019-2021, he was the most effective fantasy wide receiver on the Steelers.
Chart courtesy of DLF Player Scoring History App
As you can see, Johnson improved his yearly finish each season with the Steelers, moving from WR40 as a rookie to WR21 in 2020 to WR8 in 2021. In addition, he remained durable throughout those three seasons, missing only two games during that period. Most notably, Johnson’s targets continued to rise over his career, hitting a ridiculous 169 targets in 2021.
Due to Johnson’s success, the Steelers finally allowed Smith-Schuster to walk in free agency during the 2022 off-season, where he signed with the Chiefs. They drafted Pickens in the second round to replace him, but they committed to Johnson with a contract extension. However, that extension only covered two additional seasons and added $19 million in guaranteed money. According to the contract structure, the Steelers can easily escape this deal after the 2023 season, saving around $10 million.
Additionally, they can trade Johnson at any time, which seemed possible after their off-season. They drafted Calvin Austin III in the fourth round, and Claypool also remained under his rookie contract. The Steelers also drafted a young quarterback in Kenny Pickett, so potentially, Johnson could’ve been a trade chip down the line.
But of course, Austin missed his entire rookie year with a foot injury, and Claypool essentially forced his way off the team, landing on the Bears. Therefore, the Steelers needed Johnson, and he no longer seemed like a potential trade piece. However, under Pickett and bridge starter Mitchell Trubisky, everything fell apart for the Steelers’ passing offense.
Chart courtesy of DLF Player Scoring History App
Both Johnson and Pickens failed to produce significant fantasy numbers, even though they each played an entire 17-game season. They finished outside the top-36 wide receivers in 21 of 34 total games, with Johnson busting 12 out of 17 times this year. Neither receiver managed a top-five performance, and each finished as a weekly WR1 just once in 2022. Overall, Johnson had a slight edge, finishing at WR32 compared to WR40 for Pickens.
However, looking at the complete statistics gives a more detailed picture than only the fantasy football numbers.
Chart courtesy of Pro Football Reference
Interestingly, almost nobody on the Steelers’ offense missed significant time in 2022, outside of Pickett’s concussion issues. Once again, Johnson dominated targets but was horrendous at creating real-life production or fantasy points from his massive target share. His 58.5% catch rate and 6.0 yards/target represent by far the worst marks of his career, and he somehow managed to score zero touchdowns all season.
It’s easy to simply blame all of the offensive issues on Pickett, who struggled for fantasy football as a rookie based on a lack of passing volume. However, he had similar yards/attempt and completion percentage numbers to Roethlisberger’s 2021 performance. Most oddly, though, Pickett seemed to greatly boost Pickens while destroying Johnson’s value.
Charts courtesy of DLF Player Splits App
In the 13 games Pickett played, Pickens had superior fantasy numbers to Johnson, although Johnson still had far more targets. However, in the four games where Trubisky played the entire contest, Johnson looked like his pre-2022 self, whereas Pickens did essentially nothing. It’s a small sample size, but it’s fair to say that Pickett did not show the same preference for targeting Johnson as Trubisky or Roethlisberger.
Johnson and Pickens have had a fascinating ADP journey since Pickens joined the Steelers in May 2022’s DLF ADP data.
Chart courtesy of DLF ADP Over Time App
Throughout the off-season, Pickens mostly battled with Claypool for the WR2 role on the Steelers in ADP, as Johnson consistently remained a high-end asset. From May to October, Johnson fell between WR13 and WR17 in ADP and stayed within the top-35 assets in 1 QB data. Even after Pickens overtook Claypool on the depth chart and in dynasty perception, he still failed to rise higher than 60th overall, which he hit in September’s ADP.
However, once Pickett became the established starter, the two players’ ADPs reversed, with Pickens maintaining a clear and solid lead in November, December, and January’s ADPs. Pickens’s ADP ranged from 34-37 over that period, while Johnson fell outside the top 50 players. But the two ADPs converged in February, with Johnson regaining a slight advantage. However, I’d lean that February’s data was an outlier, especially with 2023 rookies entering the data set. I still believe that Pickens carries more market value, which is true in DLF’s dynasty rankings and the DLF Trade Analyzer.
The Future and Conclusion
Moving forward, the Steelers have Johnson, Pickens, and Freiermuth as their main receiving options. However, they might add another wide receiver in the NFL Draft or free agency, although I don’t buy the rumors linking them to Jordan Addison in the first round. Either way, though, there’s a critical difference between Johnson and Pickens that helps me decide: age.
While Johnson isn’t old, he turns 27 in July, reaching the age apex for wide receivers. In contrast, Pickens is almost five years younger, as he recently turned 22 years old in early March. Combining age with their similar 2022 production, I feel like Pickens presents far more dynasty value upside than Johnson. Pickens represents a screaming dynasty buy at their current costs, while Johnson is a hold or a slight sell, depending on your league.
2022 Entries: Jaylen Waddle vs. Tyreek Hill, Kadarius Toney vs. Wan’Dale Robinson, Juju Smith-Schuster vs. Skyy Moore, Chase Claypool vs. George Pickens, Damien Harris vs. Rhamondre Stevenson, Amon-Ra. St. Brown vs. Jameson Williams
2021 Entries: Courtland Sutton vs. Jerry Jeudy, Ronald Jones vs. Leonard Fournette, Corey Davis vs. Denzel Mims, Hunter Henry vs. Jonnu Smith, Cooper Kupp vs. Robert Woods