Could Steelers WR Diontae Johnson outproduce JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2020?

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) /

Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson exploded onto the scene as a rookie in 2019. Could the second-year receiver outproduce JuJu Smith-Schuster this year?

The Steelers current group of wide receivers is interesting for a number of reasons. In years past, we knew that Antnion Brown was going to be Ben Roethlisberger’s lead man, but now, the distribution of targets gets a bit murky.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is really the only receiver remaining that Ben has established a great repertoire with. He played just a game-and-a-half with Diontae Johnson before landing on IR and hasn’t had a lot of opportunities to develop chemistry with James Washington. In addition, the Steelers have new faces on offense in Eric Ebron and Chase Claypool.

While it’s impossible to predict exactly how targets will be distributed this sesaon, is it possible that Diontae Johnson outproduces JuJu in 2020?

Roethlisberger has always been fond of receivers that could get open. Mike Wallace and Santonio Holmes both had the ability to create separation on their own. Antonio Brown was one of the all-time greats at doing this. Ben knew where Brown was going to be seemingly every play, and Brown didn’t have a problem creating space between himself and the defender.

Steelers Diontae Johnson already elite at creating space

Johnson shares many similarities in this case. Like Brown, Johnson plays the ‘X’ receiver position for the Steelers, and is often required to beat press coverage and win on the lone receiver side of the field. However, that didn’t prove to be an issue for Johnson in his rookie season.

Despite being a third-round rookie draft choice in 2019, Johnson led all NFL receivers in separation per target with 3.6 yards of space per look, according to Next Gen Stats.  In comparison, JuJu was quite low on the list – creating just 2.4 yards of separation per target. In the grand scheme of things, the difference of 1.2 yards doesn’t seem like a lot, but that gives Roethlisberger more room for error on his passes, as Johnson rarely has a defender in his hip pocket.

However, much of Smith-Schuster’s and Johnson’s production in 2020 is going to come down to preference and trust in his receivers. Ben has already had a season where he targeted JuJu 166 times, and he came down with 111 catches for 1,426 yards and 7 touchdowns.

When it comes down to it, it’s unlikely that Johnson outpaces Smith-Schuster in his first extended action with Ben Roethlisberger at the helm. But with so many added variables to the offense, it’s impossible to rule out the thought completely.

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JuJu will be a much better player this year with Roethlisberger than he was a season ago. However, I also expect Diontae Johnson and James Washington to continue to improve and give Big Ben added weapons on the outside. It’s possible that Johnson outproduces JuJu in the near future, but I wouldn’t bet on it happening in 2020.