Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson is a promising second year player who creates separation with ease. He is a smooth operator in space and creates a ton after the catch. The issue is none of this matters if he doesn’t catch the ball.
As it stands today, Johnson currently leads the NFL in drops. The issue has magnified in the last few weeks with the offense sputtering. For a team who relies so heavily on receivers creating yards after the catch due to it’s inability to stretch the field, Diontae Johnson is a crucial piece. They are in a tough spot with him. You don’t want to erase the confidence he does have by stapling him to the bench, but can he be trusted to be a primary target right now?
Here’s the thing, what Johnson is going through isn’t that uncommon. As a matter of fact, arguably the top receiver in the game right now went through a similar issue in year 2. I want to thank Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB on twitter) for pointing this out and being my inspiration for this article…
Davante Adams then
Davante Adams is a superstar at the wide receiver position. A model of consistency, he and Aaron Rodgers form the best duo in the league for the Green Bay Packers. He has become a go-to to receiver for the future Hall of Famer and MVP front runner. It wasn’t always that way, though.
As a second round pick in 2014, he was expected to come in and contribute. He was a distant third option in the pass game behind Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, but Adams’ 446 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns were a solid rookie contribution to the 12–4 Packers. He also set their rookie record for receiving yards in a playoff game with 117 in the victory over the Cowboys, including a 46-yard touchdown.
Year 2 wasn’t quite as memorable for Adams, though. James Jones returned, joining Cobb, Nelson, and Adams. Nelson, however was lost for the season due to a torn ACL in the preseason. This should’ve opened the door for a larger role for Adams. It didn’t, as an ankle injury and a mounting drop issue hampered his impact. It became a much talked about and well documented topic. Things got to a point where Adams’ confidence had started to waver.
“It’s hard to let it go. You really want to have that, they call it, the DB mentality. Just let it go, and go to the next play. Forget about it. But it’s hard.” Adams said regarding his issues with drops in 2015.
Year 2 would be a dud of a season for Adams. He finished fourth on the team in receptions (50) and receiving yards (483), with 1 touchdown, all without Jordy Nelson.
Davante Adams now
What has happened since then has been nothing short of stellar. He was able to overcome the mental hurdles that come with one of the more simple acts in the sport: catching the football. He was given an unofficial “off-season MVP” award for the work he put in leading up to the 2016 season and has blossomed since. Davante Adams has turned himself into one of the best players at his position, who Rodgers trusts in any situation. The three time Pro-Bowler will surely make it a fourth time in 2020 and will likely be an All-Pro.
Before the hate mail starts coming my way, I am by no means saying Diontae Johnson is going to turn into Davante Adams. They aren’t one in the same and these situations aren’t complete parallels. There are some similarities when you break it down, however.
Reasons for optimism
Both came into the league as nuanced route runners who created space for themselves with ease. Johnson had a solid rookie season, contributing 59 catches, 680 receiving yards and 5 TDs for a team missing their starting quarterback. He also was named second team All-Pro for his work as a punt returner. In year two, even with the drops, he has become a favorite target for future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger. As we sit here today, he has a nice total of 69 receptions, 694 yards and 5 TDs in his sophomore season. He also leads the league in drops (the exact number varies depending on site).
It’s been as boom or bust as you can get for Diontae Johnson in 2020. He was recently even benched for close to a half of football. Head coach Mike Tomlin put his money where his mouth was. “Catch the ball or be replaced by those who will.”
This isn’t an easy fix and it isn’t just going to happen overnight. It’s going to test the mental toughness of Johnson. Like Adams though, he has the trust of a future Hall of Famer who continues to look his way when he’s on the field. It’s up to Diontae to correct his issues and turn into the player that his QB, coaching staff and fans know he can be. Players that have the ability Johnson has after the catch don’t come around very often. He is already one of the best route runners in the league, hence the reason that he has a longer leash that some others might. The traits are there if he can overcome this roadblock.
I’m not giving up on Diontae Johnson. You shouldn’t either.