By most accounts, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson had a down year, as he finished the season with 86 receptions for 882 yards and no touchdowns. However, according to ESPN analytics posted on fivethirtyeight.com, Johnson was a top-five receiver in the league, coming in at No. 5 with an overall score of 81. That rating places him below Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver A.J. Brown, Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson, Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett, and Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs.
In addition to Johnson being a top-five overall receiver, rookie wideout George Pickens was tied with Cleveland Browns receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones for the highest catch rating, at 99. Johnson had the highest open rating, also grading at 99 to make him the most open receiver in the NFL. His 99 came in above Lockett, whose 95 rating placed him as the second-most open receiver in football.
ESPN’s receiver tracking metrics “use player tracking data from NFL Next Gen Stats to analyze every route run — including those that are untargeted — and assess receiver performance in three distinct phases: getting open, contesting and making the catch, and generating yards after the catch (YAC). These three components also are blended to create an overall receiving metric,” Seth Walder explained on ESPN.com.
Despite Johnson not producing as much as he has in years past, specifically his 2021 season where he tallied 107 receptions, 1,161 yards, and eight touchdowns, he still graded out among the NFL’s best at the position. He had a 56 catch score and 43 YAC score, and the YAC score being as low as it can be blamed on the route tree he ran this season. Johnson’s YAC was a career-low 235 yards, as a lot of the routes he ran just didn’t give him the ability to pick up yards after making the catch. While the catch score looks low, it’s higher than Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and Dallas Cowboys receiver CeeDee Lamb, as Johnson’s drop “issues” have been exaggerated after he struggled with drops during the 2020 season.
Pickens graded out as the 15th-best receiver. He had an open score of just 48 (81st among qualifying wide receivers and tight end), but his catch score of 99 boosted his overall rating. While Pickens is elite at making contested catches along the sideline and his body control is up there with any receiver in the NFL, he could elevate his game and become a truly elite wide receiver if he works on getting open more often. He finished his rookie season with 52 receptions for 801 yards and four touchdowns.
With Johnson and Pickens the Steelers have one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL. While Johnson’s counting numbers don’t look as impressive as they should for a No. 1 receiver, his year can partially be attributed as a byproduct of the down year the passing game had as a whole in Pittsburgh. Hopefully, offensive coordinator Matt Canada can expand the offense and give Johnson a better route tree that works to his strengths and quarterback Kenny Pickett looks to attack downfield more. If that’s the case, both Johnson and Pickens could be in for a really strong season in 2023.