Could Steelers Diontae Johnson become a number one receiver in the NFL?

Diontae Johnson #18 of the Pittsburgh Steelers (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Diontae Johnson #18 of the Pittsburgh Steelers (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) /

The Steelers may have found a gem in the third round in wide receiver, Diontae Johnson. Could he develop into a number one receiver in the NFL?

The Steelers have had some subpar draft classes over the years. Artie Burns and Sean Davis were disappointing in the 2016 class, while Bud Dupree and Jesse James were really the only quality players Pittsburgh drafted in 2015. Fortunately, the 2019 draft class is shaping out to be a good one early – thanks in large part to Diontae Johnson.

Johnson, a former Toledo receiver, doesn’t have eye-popping measurables or physical traits. At 5’10 1/2” (16th percentile) and 183 pounds (10th percentile), Johnson is certainly on the smaller side of NFL receivers and he didn’t test as a great athlete. At the NFL Combine, Johnson ran a 4.53 40-yard dash, had a lackluster vertical jump of just 33 1/2”, and his 3-cone drill (7.09) and 20-yard shuttle (4.45) were both below the 27th percentile.

Despite all of this, Johnson impressed so much during his rookie season that he begs the question: Could he develop into a true number one wide receiver in the NFL?

Johnson may not have tested well, but a lack of athleticism certainly isn’t something that shows up on tape. Johnson is a smooth, natural athlete who is is both shifty and slippery after the catch. He can snap in and out of his routes and was number one in the league in separation created per route from the wide receiver position (3.6 yards), according to Next Gen Stats. In addition, Johnson’s best trait might be breaking press coverage. He couldn’t be pressed in college, and he’s shown an innate ability to beat press early in his career.

But with all of the good about his game, does Johnson have enough tools to be a true number one receiver in the NFL?

I seem to remember a certain Pittsburgh receiver who was undersized from a small school who tested as an even worse athlete than Diontae Johnson. Clearly, I am referring to Antonio Brown – a receiver who was just a very gifted football player despite testing as a poor athlete. This is obviously too high of praise, and Johnson has a long way to go before he can ever fill those shoes.

Still, we may want to hold off on the WR1 discussion for now. While Johnson looked very promising as a rookie, there are still some things he needs to work on. For starters, his ability to catch the ball in a contested situation was a bit concerning last year and is something that will certainly need to improve. He also needs to clean up his issue with drops, as he had 6 of them on just 92 targets last year.

A more realistic comparison for Diontae Johnson (at least for now) is former Steelers receiver, Emmanuel Sanders. Johnson does many of the same things that Sanders does. They are both good route runners who move well after the catch.

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Obviously, we don’t want to put Diontae Johnson into a box, but at the same time, we should probably give him another year before making the case for him to be a number one wide receiver in the NFL. I think a very realistic expectation for Johnson is to be a high-end number two receiver.