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Fantasy Football: Does Diontae Johnson have WR1 upside in 2021?

Oct 25, 2020; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson (18) flips the ball as he scores against the Tennessee Titans during the first half at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

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The Pittsburgh Steelers were closer to horrendous than average by the end of 2020. A blistering 11-0 start was undone by a 1-5 finish that featured the offense failing to score more than 22 points on four separate occasions. The league’s third-ranked scoring defense was hardly the culprit: Ben Roethlisberger and company simply struggled to consistently move the ball down the field for the better part of last winter.

Of course, the year wasn’t all bad. The Steelers scored enough points during the first three months of the season to still finish with the league’s 12th-ranked scoring offense, and late-season performances against the Colts (28 points) and Browns (37) demonstrated that Big Ben could still lead a fairly prolific offense.

Arguably the biggest bright spot from the offense was the performance of its top-three wide receivers: Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool. Hell, even James Washington generally made the most out of his opportunities. Each receiver certainly also had his fair share of troubles (more on that in a bit), but ultimately JuJu (PPR WR16), Johnson (WR21) and Claypool (WR22) all posted top-24 fantasy production on the season.

What follows is a breakdown on what makes the Steelers wide receivers tick as well as what to make of them as 2021 fantasy assets.

Volume is a helluva drug

The main reason why each of Smith-Schuster, Johnson and Claypool emerged as high-end fantasy producers is simple: volume. The only wide receivers with more targets than Johnson (139) last season were Stefon Diggs, DeAndre Hopkins, Allen Robinson and Davante Adams. JuJu (125) ranked 13th and Claypool (103) wasn’t too far behind at 28th.

Such is life in one of just three offenses with a quarterback who racked up at least 600 pass attempts in 2020.

Johnson’s volume in particular was patently absurd considering he missed one game and was limited to fewer than 30 total snaps in three additional contests. He joined Keenan Allen and Adams as the only players with double-digit games of 10-plus targets in 2020. Yes, it wasn’t ideal that Johnson dropped a league-high 14 passes. Also yes, raw drop totals tend to be more of a result from continuously getting open rather than an indictment on catching ability. Past leaderboards reflect the reality that we tend to see some of the league’s best pass-catchers drop a good bunch of passes.

Clearly Johnson needs to work on his hands; just don’t hold that against him more than fellow butter fingers alumni like Jerry Jeudy (12 drops in 2020), D.K. Metcalf (10), Calvin Ridley (9) and Tyreek Hill (9). At his best, Johnson combines smooth route-running ability with borderline erotic after-the-catch goodness. The man made way too many unbelievable plays last season to be considered anything other than a great wide receiver.

Then we have JuJu, who simply hasn’t resembled the same player we saw dominate during his first two seasons in the league. Obviously the departure of Antonio Brown hasn’t helped matters, but it’s unclear what happened to the man that used to be one of the league’s more dangerous players after the catch. Overall, Smith-Schuster has forced just eight total missed tackles over the past two seasons after meeting that mark in 2018 (8) and 2019 (9) alike. His average of four yards after the catch per reception in 2020 marked the first time in his career he finished below 5.9.

Perhaps injuries could explain why JuJu hasn’t looked right in recent years; he suffered toe, foot and knee injuries in 2019 before spending the majority of the 2020 season on the injury report with another knee issue. Credit to the 24-year-old talent for toughing it out and playing through the pain when able; here’s to hoping we see a healthier version of Smith-Schuster in 2021 and beyond.

Finally we have Claypool, who had his snaps reduced after a hot start to apparently help (?) him avoid hitting a rookie wall. Seriously. That’s what Mike Tomlin said. To this day, scholars debate what the hell he was talking about.

Either way, Claypool is fresh off a 13-score debut (including playoffs) that demonstrated a fantasy-friendly blend of big-play ability and red-zone dominance. He joins quite the list of rookie wide receivers who managed to find the end zone on 10 separate occasions since 2000:

  1. Odell Beckham (12 TDs as a rookie)
  2. Mike Evans (12)
  3. Tyreek Hill (12)
  4. Claypool (11)
  5. Mike Williams (11, the Tampa Bay one)
  6. Calvin Ridley (10)

Spare me the “take away Claypool’s four touchdown performance and then what do you have” ridiculousness. Finding a way to penalize players for outlier performances is absurd; Claypool was good enough to torch the Eagles on that October afternoon — we can’t ignore that just like truthers can’t simply remove his 1-(-)2-0 performance against the Titans because he only had one target. My primary example for when it’s OK to take away a player’s big play is when Bilal Powell fell down, the entire defense gave up, and he waltzed unevaded to the end zone. Otherwise, the player made the play, it counted, include it in the analysis.

The expectation is that the Steelers will utilize less of a rotation between Claypool and Washington as the No. 3 wide receiver in 2021, although this isn’t a given. In an ideal world, JuJu-Johnson-Claypool three-WR sets should become the full-time base offense in Pittsburgh. 

It remains to be seen if they’ll be surrounded by a more competent signal-caller and offensive line.

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