The Fantasy Case Against Diontae Johnson: Life Without Ben Roethlisberger
The summer is here, meaning we’re getting closer to the start of fantasy football drafts. Success in those drafts will come from landing terrific bargains in the middle to late rounds, while avoiding players who could see their numbers decline compared to 2021. That latter exercise isn’t easy, however, especially in the case of players who are among the elite at their position or are coming off breakout seasons in the stat sheets.
Case in point. In 2019, Michael Thomas went absolutely bananas for the Saints, and fantasy fans with nearly 375 fantasy points on a record 149 catches for 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns. As a result, he was the consensus No. 1 wide receiver in fantasy drafts and a surefire first-round pick. The aftermath, though, was not nearly as good.
Thomas averaged 12 fantasy points a game, down more than 11 points from the previous season, and missed nine games due to injuries. It’s tough to predict a long-term ailment, of course, but Thomas wasn’t nearly as productive even when he played.
The point here is that few folks saw this coming because Thomas was so good in 2019. That leads me to this series, aptly named “The Fantasy Case Against…” where I’ll do my due diligence in looking at players who everyone in fantasy land thinks are a sure bet to remain uber-productive after finding a high level of success in past seasons.
The series highlights big-name players—or those coming off enormous statistical years— who could see a surprising decline in fantasy success. Like I always say, the only predictable thing about the NFL is that it’s often unpredictable. And as much as we love our fantasy heroes out on the gridiron, no one is ever guaranteed to succeed.
Johnson finished eighth in fantasy points among wide receivers in 2021, scoring just 11.1 fewer points than Bills fantasy stud Stefon Diggs. He recorded personal bests in targets, receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches. D.J. was one of the most consistent wide receivers in fantasy as well, scoring 14-plus fantasy points 12 different times in 16 games. That included seven games where he scored more than 17 points.
Did You Know?
Johnson finished in a tie for fifth in offensive snaps among wide receivers last season, behind only Cooper Kupp, Justin Jefferson, Terry McLaurin and D.J. Moore. His 10.6 targets per game were tied with Davante Adams for second-most at the position behind only Kupp, and only Kupp, Adams and Chris Godwin averaged more catches per game.
One of the most reliable wideouts in fantasy leagues, Johnson averaged 17.2 points per game last season. That was the eighth most among wide receivers who played in at least 14 games. Johnson’s average point per game totals were also better than Stefon Diggs, Mike Evans, Keenan Allen, Jaylen Waddle, Brandin Cooks and CeeDee Lamb.
Johnson’s 274.4 fantasy points last season were the 10th-most scored by a Steelers wide receiver in the Super Bowl era. Only three wideouts have scored more PPR points in a single season. That list includes superstar Antonio Brown, one-time Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward and JuJu Smith-Schuster. His 169 targets are the third most by a Steelers receiver since 1966, and his 107 catches are good for the sixth-most.
One thing all of the above receivers had in common was their starting quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. In fact, 18 of the top 20 single-season fantasy performances by Steelers wideouts in the Super Bowl era came with Big Ben. The two lone exceptions were both from Yancy Thigpen, who had Neil O’Donnell under center during the 1995 season and Kordell Stewart, who was at the helm of the Steelers pass attack in 1997.
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Coaching & Personnel Changes
Matt Canada will enter his second year as the Steelers offensive coordinator. Last year under his watch, the offense ranked ninth in average plays per game, 21st in points per game and third in pass percentage. In fact, the only two teams that threw the ball more than the Steelers were the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New York Jets (believe it or not). Pittsburgh was also fourth in pass attempts with Big Ben under center.
Roethlisberger has since retired, leaving the Steelers with veteran Mitchell Trubisky and rookie Kenny Pickett as their top two quarterback options. That, of course, is the biggest question mark pertaining to Johnson’s value this season. The Steelers also lost Smith-Schuster to the Kansas City Chiefs in free agency and added a pair of rookie receivers in George Pickens and Calvin Austin III. Smith-Schuster’s absence opens up around five targets per game, at least based on his 2021 totals.
The biggest challenge Johnson faces this season is playing without Roethlisberger, who is the only quarterback he’s known in his career. You can make all the jokes you want about his old noodle, but he loved throwing to Johnson. That was obvious, as nearly 26% of his total pass attempts were thrown in his direction over the last two years. That was reflected in the fact that Johnson was ninth in target share among wide receivers during that period, and only Adams averaged more targets per game.
Will that target share remain the same with Trubisky or Pickett? That’s the $1 million question. My guess would be no, due in part to a few important statistical factors.
Roethlisberger averaged 606.5 pass attempts in his last two seasons, including 605 in his lone year with Canada as the offensive coordinator. Only Tom Brady, Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen averaged more pass attempts per game in 2021. Will Canada have enough faith in Trubisky to throw the ball that much? Also keep in mind that Trubisky has never thrown the ball more than 516 times in a single season and has never thrown for more than 3,138 yards during his career in the big leagues.
Different team, different players. I get it. But this is also a quarterback who failed to meet expectations in Chicago, was benched for Nick Foles and ended up as a backup in Buffalo last season. Heck, his greatest accomplishment as a pro to this point might be earning the NVP award (Nickelodeon Valuable Player) in a playoff loss to the Saints. I’m joking, but you get it … Trubisky is no lock to be better than he was in Chicago, and any long-term faltering could cause Johnson to be catching (fewer) passes from a rookie.
Questions about Trubisky’s shelf life will affect Johnson’s production, no doubt.
Some would argue that Allen Robinson had two top-10 fantasy seasons when Trubisky was in Chicago, but Trubisky started 24 of those 32 games. Robinson also averaged more catches and receiving yards with Foles at the helm (nine games) while in the Windy City. The Bears were also devoid of good pass catchers, as Trubisky had just Anthony Miller and not much else behind Robinson on the team’s depth chart.
In Pittsburgh, Trubisky will have not only Johnson in the pass attack but also Chase Claypool, Pickens and tight end Pat Freiermuth. Let’s also not forget Najee Harris, who had 74 catches out of the backfield as a rookie. Trubisky almost had to throw the football to Robinson by default while in Chicago. He won’t have that problem with the Steelers, so a target funnel situation with Johnson is less likely compared to the Bears.
While there are some things to like about Trubisky, like his air yards per attempt, pass plays of 20-plus yards and touchdown percentage compared to Roethlisberger’s last two seasons, he is anything but a lock to produce at a high level in the Steelers offense. Heck, Canada could (and I believe will) call more running plays with Harris behind what should be an improved offensive line. That would mean fewer passes for Trubisky or Pickett, which equates to fewer opportunities for Johnson to produce in the stat sheets.
In the month of June, Johnson is the WR15 and holds an average draft position of 36.4 in the National Fantasy Football Championships. He’s not seen as a No. 1 fantasy wide receiver like he was last year, nor should he be with questions surrounding the Steelers quarterback situation. Unless everything falls into place, I could easily see a scenario where Johnson is closer to the being WR20 than a potential top-10 option in 2022.
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Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Click here to read all his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram for your late-breaking fantasy news and the best analysis in the business!
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.