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Diontae Johnson to NY Jets: Dream trade or fool’s gold?

Diontae Johnson
Diontae Johnson

Diontae Johnson adds another intriguing trade option for the New York Jets

Another big-name wide receiver has arrived on the trade block. The Pittsburgh Steelers are reportedly open to trading Diontae Johnson.

Does Johnson immediately leapfrog players like Courtland Sutton and Mike Williams as the New York Jets’ most ideal trade target?

Let’s dig into his player profile to find out.

Jets free agent profiles:

Basic info

  • Age: 27.6
  • Height: 5-foot-10
  • Weight: 183 pounds
  • College: Toledo
  • Experience: 5 years (Draft Round 3, Pick 66 by Steelers in 2019)
  • Teams: Steelers (2019-present)
  • Previous contract: 2-year, $36.7M extension (Signed with Steelers in 2022)

Measurables

  • Data from 2019 Combine (via Mockdraftable)
  • Percentiles among all-time wide receiver prospects

  • Height: 5’10.5″ (16th percentile)
  • Weight: 183 pounds (12th)
  • Arm length: 30.75in (18th)
  • Hand size: 9in (21st)
  • 40-yard dash: 4.53s (43rd)
  • Vertical jump: 33.5in (25th)
  • Broad jump: 123in (62nd)
  • 3-cone drill: 7.09s (27th)
  • 20-yard shuttle: 4.45s (8th)
  • Bench press: 15 reps (55th)

Johnson earned a Relative Athletic Score (RAS) of 4.18/10.

Role

Johnson has been the Steelers’ No. 1 receiver since 2020, leading the team in targets per game for four consecutive seasons.

While Johnson maintained that title in 2023, he was less involved than in previous seasons. After averaging at least 8.6 targets per game each year from 2020-22, Johnson slipped to 6.7 targets per game in 2023, just barely ahead of George Pickens (6.2) for the team lead. Johnson’s snap count also dipped. After averaging over 90% of the snaps per game in 2021 and 2022, Johnson’s average snap percentage dropped to 71% in 2023.

Despite his slight frame, Johnson lines up outside on the vast majority of his snaps. He aligned outside on 87.1% of his career pass plays.

For most of his career, Johnson primarily operated in the underneath area. His career average depth of target is 9.8 yards. In 2023, though, the Steelers began using Johnson downfield significantly more than in the past. Johnson had a career-high ADOT of 12.7 yards, ranking 26th out of 80 qualified wide receivers. A career-high 21% of Johnson’s targets came at least 20 yards down the field.

2023 performance vs. previous track record

On the surface, Johnson’s 2023 season might look like a down year by his standards. It was only the third-best season of his career in terms of receiving yards per game (55.2) while it ranked fourth in receptions per game (3.9). His total of five touchdowns was a bounce-back from his shocking touchdown-less year in 2022, but it still only ties for his third-best career total.

Looking deeper, though, 2023 was the most efficient season of Johnson’s career in just about every category you could find. He set career-highs in yards per target (8.2), yards per reception (14.1), yards per route run (1.97), success rate (52.9%), and EPA per target (0.24).

Over the previous three seasons, Johnson generated an extremely high volume of targets but didn’t make much out of them. From 2020-22, Johnson had the fifth-most targets (460) but only ranked 16th in receiving yards (2,966) and 30th in touchdowns (15). In 2023, Johnson saw a decline in snaps and targets, but he maximized his opportunities better than ever before. This is a promising development for a team like the Jets that is projecting Johnson into a No. 2 role, not asking him to be their go-to guy.

Of course, when evaluating Johnson’s statistical production, it is important to keep in mind that he has dealt with a putrid quarterback situation in Pittsburgh for his whole career. Johnson’s hefty target volume from 2020-22 likely would have amounted to more production if he had better quarterbacking.

To evaluate Johnson’s future outlook, we have to judge him on factors that are mostly within his control, not by box-score metrics that are largely dependent on his surroundings.

Strengths and weaknesses

Strength: Route running

Johnson has a tremendous reputation as a route runner. He consistently ranks at an elite level in metrics that are designed to capture route running.

In ESPN Analytics’ Open Score, here are Johnson’s ranks in his career:

  • 2023: 11th out of 109 qualified WR
  • 2022: 1st out of 131
  • 2021: 4th out of 141
  • 2020: 3rd out of 136
  • 2019: 2nd out of 131

Johnson also ranked in the upper echelon of Pro Football Focus’ separation grade this season:

Diontae-Johnson-Stats

Weakness: Hands

Drops have been an issue for Johnson. He has a career drop rate of 7.8%, higher than the 2023 league average for wide receivers (6.5%). Johnson actually had a career-low 3.8% rate in 2023, dropping only two passes, but he had eight drops on an 8.5% rate in the previous season.

In addition to dropping too many freebies, Johnson also cannot be counted on to make the difficult catches. His lack of size has caused him to struggle in the contested catch department. Johnson has only snagged 38% of contested targets in his career, including 6-of-17 in 2023 (35.3%). The league average for wide receivers hovers around 42-45% each year.

Fumbles are another minor issue to watch out for. Johnson has 11 of them in five seasons, tied for the fourth-most among wide receivers since 2019. To be fair, five of them came in his rookie season. Still, Johnson has six fumbles over the past four seasons, with at least one each year.

Strength: Elusiveness

Johnson is a good playmaker after the catch. While he doesn’t have the greatest breakaway speed, he evades tacklers at a solid rate. Johnson has forced 69 missed tackles on 391 receptions in his career, an average of 0.170 per reception. That’s a sizable margin ahead of the 2023 league average for wide receivers (0.120). Johnson was at 0.177 in 2023 (9 MTF on 51 REC), ranking 15th among 70 qualified wide receivers.

Scheme fit

Every NFL offense has a place for someone with Johnson’s route running ability. He has been separating at an elite level throughout his career. It shows in his incredible target volume. You don’t attract over 600 targets in your first five seasons by accident. Only players with star-level talent can convince their teams to run the offense through them on a weekly basis for half of a decade.

Johnson has been unable to translate his target volume into star-level production, but is that his fault? The Steelers’ quarterbacks have been brutal. Johnson profiles as a player whose numbers could skyrocket if he lands in a better situation.

As for Johnson’s specific fit with the Jets, I think his 2023 season answered a lot of questions that I may have had about his fit in New York. Johnson improved as a downfield threat, which is something I believe the Jets desperately need across from Garrett Wilson. Before 2023, Johnson largely feasted on short targets, which clashes with Wilson’s game, but this past season proved that Johnson can attack vertically to back defenses off, opening up underneath space for both himself and Wilson.

On top of that, I like how Johnson’s efficiency improved alongside his decrease in targets and snaps. With Wilson already in place as the go-to guy, the Jets need someone who can thrive in a No. 2 role. Johnson’s 2023 workload was similar to what the Jets would probably be asking him to handle – somewhere around six to seven targets per game. And that workload led to the best football of his career. Because of this, he projects excellently into a role alongside Wilson.

My main concern with adding Johnson as the No. 2 receiver is whether the Jets would become too small at the wide receiver position. They already have a relatively small No. 1 in Wilson (6’0, 190), and by adding Johnson, they would be throwing at least 15 targets per game to two players who are 190 pounds or smaller. Size is not necessarily a limitation for any one player as an individual – as shown by the success of Wilson and Johnson – but when both of your top two guys are on the smaller side, it’s a concern worth noting.

This is especially true because of both players’ struggles with contested catches. If one or both players proved they are an efficient jump-ball winner, the lack of size wouldn’t matter, but that’s not the case. Johnson has caught 38% of contested targets in his career while Wilson is at 32.9%.

Aaron Rodgers is a quarterback who likes to just chuck the ball up and let his guy make a play. With two smaller receivers on the outside who have hauled in less than two out of every five contested targets, would he trust his receivers enough to instinctively throw up a jump ball when he sees a matchup he likes? The collective lack of size and contested catch success could cause Rodgers to attempt fewer aggressive downfield shots. You don’t want one of Rodgers’ best traits to become restricted because he loses trust in his receivers.

Of course, neither Wilson nor Johnson has played with a quarterback who is even remotely close to the caliber of Rodgers (Ben Roethlisberger was washed up by the time he played with Johnson). Poor quarterbacking could certainly hinder a player’s contested catch rate. Some quarterbacks throw up ill-advised prayers, and some quarterbacks, like Rodgers, pick their spots wisely while also having the arm talent to put the ball in a perfect spot against tight coverage. Perhaps Wilson and Johnson’s contested catch woes would be mitigated with Rodgers.

Overall, I like Johnson’s fit with the Jets because of his route running, vertical improvement in 2023, and his efficiency on a lower target volume in 2023. The size factor is something to keep in mind, though. Would the Jets be better off with a big-bodied player like Courtland Sutton or Mike Williams as the complement to Wilson? It can be argued.

Perhaps this is an area where the Jets will ask for Rodgers’ input. Which type of receiver would he prefer? While you don’t want Rodgers to be too involved in building the team after how poorly his suggestions panned out last offseason, this is one place where his opinion is worth taking into account.

Durability

Playing in 77 out of 83 games in his career, Johnson’s track record of durability is solid. Four of his six missed games came early in 2023 as he was sidelined from Weeks 2-5 with a hamstring injury.

Projected cost

Johnson is entering a contract year. If traded, the team that acquires him would take on a $10 million cap hit this offseason.

Most likely, any team looking to trade for Johnson would also be hoping to sign him long-term. The question is whether Johnson would sign an extension this offseason or if he would bet on himself to see if he could boost his production in a new environment.

As for the trade cost, it’s always total speculation to try and predict what it will take to acquire a player, but Saturday’s Jerry Jeudy trade began to set the trade market for wide receivers. The Browns sent a fifth-round pick and a sixth-round pick to Denver.

Jeudy’s situation is similar to Johnson’s. Like Johnson, Jeudy is entering a contract year, although Jeudy will be 25 this season while Johnson will be 28. The age advantage goes to Jeudy, but Jeudy will have a slightly larger cap hit this year, costing $13 million for Cleveland whereas Johnson would cost $10 million.

Most people would argue that Johnson is a better player than Jeudy, but their standard box-score numbers were not far apart over the past two seasons. Jeudy had 121 receptions for 1,730 yards and eight touchdowns in 31 games, while Johnson has 137 receptions for 1,599 yards and five touchdowns in 30 games. Jeudy’s quarterback situation may not have been Pittsburgh-level bad, but it still wasn’t remotely ideal.

The similarity in their production over the past two seasons is enough to slightly narrow the gap, but Johnson should still be considered the better player. He showed a higher ceiling over his first three seasons than Jeudy has, and when evaluating both players’ film and metrics independent of their surroundings, Johnson has the better reputation. It’s safe to say the league views him more highly – not to mention, he will have a lower cap hit this year by $3 million. Jeudy’s only advantage is his age.

All things considered, Johnson would probably net a larger trade package than Jeudy, although not by an enormous margin. I’m thinking it will take a third-round pick. Don’t take my word for it, I’m merely making an educated guess based on the information at hand.

The verdict

The Jets should absolutely call the Steelers about Johnson. Because of the extreme demand for wide receiver help in the NFL, there will be numerous teams fighting for every WR that is available via trade or the free agent market, so it would be foolish for the Jets to say “We’ll pass” regarding any of them. The Jets are too barren at WR to be choosy. They need to be involved in every discussion.

With that being said, I do wonder if Johnson should be the Jets’ top priority. Should they go after a bigger body like Courtland Sutton or Mike Williams first? Or try to sign Calvin Ridley without giving up assets? I don’t think there’s a definitive answer – these players are close enough to make this debate entirely subjective – but the Jets need to decide on their preference. As I mentioned earlier, Rodgers’ opinion is valuable here.

A team without a true No. 1 receiver might be more desperate than the Jets to both acquire Johnson and then pay him. His top-of-the-line route running and mammoth target volume suggest he can dominate at an All-Pro level if he gets to play in a competent offense. For this reason, Johnson’s trade cost could balloon to a level that the Jets cannot afford to match for a player who they would only be asking to play the No. 2 role. This could push them toward someone like Sutton, who might not demand quite as much interest as Johnson.

It’s all speculation, though. None of us know how the NFL views any of these players in terms of trade or financial compensation. If the price is right, any player is worth adding, and for the WR-needy Jets, it would be a dream come true to pair Garrett Wilson with Diontae Johnson. They would arguably form the best route running WR duo in the NFL.

At the very least, New York should give Pittsburgh a call and see what his market looks like.

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Peter Buell
Peter Buell
2 months ago

I’d rather have Cal Ridley for a few mill more.
He’s not worth a $15m cap hit plus pick(s)

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