You may not know it with the amount of hype heaped upon rookie receivers like Deebo Samuel, D.K. Metcalf and Terry McLaurin, but in 2019, it was Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson that lead the league in receptions among first-year players. In 12 starts, Johnson had 59 receptions for 680 yards and five touchdowns. That was good enough for first, sixth and seventh respectively among his rookie class.
So what’s in store in year two? In addition to a year of pro strength training and all the other things that come from being part of a NFL organization, Johnson will have a full year of catching passes from a 17-year vet Ben Roethlisberger, a mild upgrade over Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges to say the least.
How has an entire season with Roethlisberger worked out for previous Steelers receivers in their sophomore campaigns? Let’s take a look back starting with the rookies he played with and how they improved in their second year.
Nate Washington (2005): 0 targets / 0 receptions / 0 yards / 0 touchdowns / 0 catch % / 0 yards per target
Nate Washington (2006): 69 / 35 / 624 / 4 / 50.7% / 9.04
Washington didn’t have a single catch his rookie year, but was a solid contributor in his sophomore campaign, which was Ben’s third year on the job.
Santonio Holmes (2006): 86/ 49 / 824 / 2 / 57% / 9.58
Santonio Holmes (2007): 85 / 52 / 942 / 8 / 61.2% / 11.08
As a rookie, Holmes had a very productive season. But he improved across the board, especially in touchdowns and yards per target, in his second season.
Mike Wallace (2009): 72 / 39 / 756 / 6 / 54.2% / 10.50
Mike Wallace (2010): 98 / 60 / 1257 / 10 / 61.2% / 12.83
Wallace saw a big increase in receptions (54%) and receiving yards (66%) compared to his rookie season as he became one of the premier deep threats in the NFL.
Emmanuel Sanders (2010): 43 / 28 / 376 / 2 / 56.0% / 7.52
Emmanuel Sanders (2011): 50 / 22 / 288 / 2 / 51.2% / 6.70
Sanders was one of the few players whose production dipped in year two, mostly as a result of the incredible rise of his fellow 2010 draft pick Antonio Brown.
Antonio Brown (2010): 19 / 16 / 167 / 0 / 84.2% / 8.79
Antonio Brown (2011): 124 / 69 / 1108 / 2 / 55.6% / 8.94
After an inauspicious start to his career, Brown exploded in his second season with the Steelers putting up three times the catches and five times to yardage compared to his rookie season.
Martavis Bryant (2013): 48 / 26 / 549 / 8 / 54.2% / 11.44
Martavis Bryant (2014): 92 / 50 / 765 / 6 / 54.3% / 8.32
Bryant nearly doubled his reception total after an incredible rookie campaign that saw him catch touchdowns on more than a quarter of his catches in year two. But Bryant proved that his rookie campaign wasn’t a fluke with a solid 50 receptions for 765 yards.
Markus Wheaton (2013): 13 / 6 / 64 / 0 / 46.2% / 4.92
Markus Wheaton (2014): 86 / 53 / 644 / 2 / 61.6% / 7.49
Wheaton looked like he was on his way to being the next Steelers mid-round receiver find after a nice year two. Unfortunately his 2014 sophomore season turned out to be the high point of his career.
JuJu Smith-Schuster (2017): 79 / 58 / 917 / 7 / 73.4% / 11.6
JuJu Smith-Schuster (2018): 166 / 111 / 1426 / 7 / 66.9% / 8.59
Smith-Schuster certainly showed flashes in his rookie season opposite full-fledged superstar Antonio Brown, but it was nothing compared to what he’d do in year two. With Brown drawing the top corners, Smith-Schuster was virtually unstoppable posting career highs in catches and yardage.
James Washington (2018): 38 / 16 / 217 / 1 / 42.1% / 5.71
James Washington (2019): 80 / 44 / 735 / 3 / 55.0% / 9.19
Washington did not live up to his second round pick status in year one with a paltry 16 catches for 217 yards playing with Roethlisberger. But in year two, even with Roethlisberger on the shelf for most of the season, Washington showed the flashes that made him such a threat in college. His ability to make combat catches was on full display as he more than tripled his receiving yards and posted a huge increase in catches, catch percentage and yards per target.
Diontae Johnson (2019): 92 / 59 / 680 / 5 / 64.1% / 7.39
Johnson really began to excel towards the end of his 2019 season as he gained a report with Rudolph and Hodges. And it wasn’t just on short passes, in the last four weeks of the season, Johnson was the Steelers best down the field option as well. A deft route runner, Johnson was tops in the entire league in target separation, which measures the average yards of separation between the receiver and cornerback at the time of the catch. The Toledo product also finished 24th in the NFL in yards after catch and was 3rd in forced missed tackles among receivers. Perhaps even more encouraging was the amount of targets Johnson had as a rookie. The 92 were most since Ben Roethlisberger became quarterback and second most in Steelers history.
So what will Johnson do in year two? His rookie numbers were most comparable to Santonio Holmes who was the Steelers’ clear number two receiver behind Hines Ward in his second year. Johnson’s numbers will get a boost from being the likely number two receiver–and the increase in targets that accompanies it–when the season opens opposite a presumably healthy Smith-Schuster. Although it’s worth noting that with the recent acquisition of tight end Eric Ebron, a healthy Vance McDonald and a deep, if inexperienced, receiving corps, there’s going to be a lot of competition for targets.
Despite that it’s probably safe to say that with Roethlisberger coming back and the offense more geared towards the passing game, Johnson’s numbers will see a moderate increase from his impressive rookie season.
Johnson’s individual metrics; his impressive separation on catches and his ability to break tackles all indicate that Johnson should continue to progress in 2020. and it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see him eclipse 75 catches and 1,000 yards in year two.