There was a lot to notice in the Chargers’ dismantling of the Chicago Bears on Sunday night — Justin Herbert racking up three TDs and almost 300 yards, Austin Ekeler finally exploding for over 100 all-purpose yards and a score — but you may not have noticed a quiet but productive night from LA’s rookie wideout Quentin Johnston.
Johnston entered the game with just seven catches for 64 yards on the season but nearly matched those numbers in Week 8, catching five of six targets for 50 yards. It wasn’t an explosion by any means, but it may be a sign of things to come for the Chargers first-round pick.
INJURIES LEADING TO OPPORTUNITIES
Johnston was taken 21st overall in April’s draft and opened the season fourth on the Chargers WR depth chart behind Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Joshua Palmer.
Williams tore his ACL in Week 3, ending his season, and now Palmer has been battling a knee injury that resurfaced on Sunday night, although he was able to finish the game and catch three passes for 24 yards.
The extent of Palmer’s injury remains unclear. But, considering this was a re-aggravation of an existing injury, the Chargers will likely be cautious in his workload during practice this week.
Even if Palmer is active in Week 9, his injured status over the week should mean an influx in meaningful first-team reps for Johnston. This opportunity to build trust with Herbert and the coaching staff could be a huge key to his fantasy value for the remainder of this season.
The Chargers thin out dramatically after Johnston on their WR depth chart, as Jalen Guyton is still recovering from an ACL tear he suffered last year, and their two remaining wideouts boast just 11 career receptions between them. Starting tight end Gerald Everett was also out against Chicago and remains questionable for Week 9 with a hip injury.
If Johnston is ever going to emerge as a consistent receiving option in his rookie campaign, now is the time.
IS JOHNSTON READY TO MAKE THE LEAP?
Johnston was touted for his athleticism coming out of TCU this year, measuring 6’3″ with a 40.5-inch vertical. Johnston led TCU in receiving all three years and had his breakout season at 19 years old. As a junior in 2022, he played 12 games and hauled in 53 catches for 901 yards for an average of 17.0 yards per catch, with five touchdowns and a QB rating when targeted of 103.1.
The Chargers clearly deemed him worthy of a first-round selection despite their strong existing receiver group, which gives me hope for his role now that he has moved his way up the depth chart.
If there was any concern about Johnston as an NFL prospect, it was his hands, but with no drops on 21 targets so far in 2023, those concerns have yet to come to fruition in any way.
Most of Johnston’s targets on Sunday night were in short to intermediate area, but he did get an end zone target that resulted in an incomplete pass due to a solid defensive effort by the defensive back.
“We wanted to get him going. I felt like we had a lot of good plays in the plan for him,” Brandon Staley said after Week 8. “He made plays tonight, a lot of different types of plays. That third-down conversion on the back shoulder was huge. Got a couple of shallow crosses.”
Many of LA’s available targets also went to Ekeler in this contest, as the Chargers took advantage of a Chicago zone defense that left them vulnerable to dump-offs and RB screens. This isn’t going to be their strategy every week, and it stands to reason that Johnston will benefit from more downfield passing moving forward.
REST OF SEASON FANTASY OUTLOOK
Obviously, Johnston remains a relatively unproven asset at this point, but Sunday night showed that he’s ready to make a more significant impact in LA’s offense. The Chargers’ defense is 24th in scoring, so if they continue winning and keep pace in the AFC playoff picture, they’ll need to do so with increased offensive production from guys like Johnston.
“The more he plays, the more he improves. I’ve told you guys that all season with him,” Staley added. “I think you’re seeing that. The more that he figures out how to play, you’re going to see the production because he is certainly capable. I’m proud of how hard he’s worked. You can see that he’s earning the trust of the quarterback more and more. He just needs to stay on track.”
Johnston is currently the WR62 on The Wolf’s Rest of Season Big Board, 19 spots below his teammate Palmer. He’s rostered in just 19% of leagues as of today and definitely warrants a pickup off the Week 9 Waiver Wire despite the Chargers’ tough upcoming schedule (@ NYJ, vs. DET, @ GB, vs. BAL).