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Pittsburgh Steelers WR Diontae Johnson has quietly become one of the NFL's best wide receivers

At a position of big personalities, massive value and inflating salaries, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson has managed to fly under the radar as one of the NFL’s best and most productive.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of Johnson’s skill level is the fact that he infamously led the NFL in drops last season, yet his ability to separate off the line of scrimmage and get open down the field was still enough to make him the NFL’s fifth-most targeted receiver despite sharing a depth chart with fellow stars Chase Claypool (higher drafted) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (higher paid).

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Still, it wasn’t a fun year for Johnson. Each drop only compounded the problem and made the situation worse. It became cyclical in nature.

The more Johnson dropped the football, the more he thought about the issue and the more distracted he became, leading to a lack of focus and more drops. And those drops led to more people, despite their pedigree or qualifications, hounding Johnson, whether in person or on social media about dropping the football and how to fix the matter. And that further perpetuated the problem and led Johnson to dwell on it more. The issue persisted all season.

“It’s just bound to let stuff get to you reading social media,” Johnson told PFF this week. “It’s not like you don’t see it. But at the end of the day you try to put it in the back of your mind, but at the same time it’s steady coming to the front of your mind. Can’t do nothing but think about it. Little off the field stuff as well, so that all played a big part in that mental aspect when it comes to focusing. Because there would be times when I would be thinking about other stuff at the line, and I wouldn’t be locked in, and, boom, dropped the ball and I’m thinking about that the whole game. … 

“You’ve got people in your ear telling you what you should do. Too many people just trying to tell you how to play football, and it’s like, ‘Bruh, I’ve been doing it for so long. Who are you to tell me how to catch the ball or run this certain route?’ Just stuff like that. Then you see people on Twitter bashing your name, when they’ve never probably played a down in their life of football.”

Dec 5, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson (18) celebrates a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field. Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

It all culminated in 14 total drops and a 13.7% drop rate, which ranked 10th among qualified wide receivers. Despite the drops, Johnson still earned a 69.4 overall PFF grade last season. He ranked 15th in forced missed tackles and caught 88 passes on 139 targets for 923 yards with seven touchdowns.

Drops had not previously been an issue for Johnson. He dropped just three passes on 86 targets as a rookie in 2019, and 16 passes in three seasons at Toledo. So, before the 2021 season, Johnson wrote down a list of goals.

“Make the Pro Bowl, be at least top-20 receiver in the league, top receiving yards and really just no drops,” Johnson said. “Obviously, I’m not going to be perfect, but that’s a real real big one I put up, no drops.”

Diontae Johnson | Drops by Season
Games Targets Catches Drops Drop Rate
2021 12 127 81 3 3.6%
2020 15 155 99 15 13.2%
2019 16 86 59 3 4.8%

Click here to view Diontae Johnson's career in PFF Premium Stats…

Johnson’s solution to fix his drops was mostly simple: He’d catch as many passes, whether they were footballs or tennis balls, as possible. He took the matter seriously and was proactive in fixing any technique issues that contributed.

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