Diontae Johnson’s 2024 Fantasy Outlook Hits a Roadblock After Trade to Panthers

It became increasingly clear during the 2023 season that Diontae Johnson was unhappy in Pittsburgh and likely wouldn’t be part of their long-term plans. This notion was solidified last week, as Johnson was sent to the Carolina Panthers for cornerback Donte Jackson in a deal that also included a late-round pick swap.

Johnson immediately becomes Carolina’s presumptive WR1, joining a receiver group of Adam Thielen, Jonathan Mingo, and Terrace Marshall Jr., among the league’s least productive last season. He’ll likely become an immediate go-to target for Bryce Young, who will aim to improve on a lackluster rookie season in year two.

DIONTAE JOHNSON’S FIT IN CAROLINA

Johnson was Pittsburgh’s longest-tenured offensive player before the trade. But, his final season in the black and gold was marked by underwhelming performance, missed games due to injury, and criticism over lack of effort on loose balls and run blocking. Carolina is clearly hoping that a change of scenery will benefit the sixth-year man out of Toledo.

Johnson’s best year as a pro was 2021, when he caught 107 passes for 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns. Unsurprisingly, this was also the last year he had Ben Roethlisberger as his quarterback, playing with a mix of Kenny Pickett, Mitchell Trubisky, and Mason Rudolph over the last two years.

Despite fluctuations in production, Johnson was consistently praised for his route running and ability to create separation at the line of scrimmage. According to PFF, Johnson recorded 0.61 fantasy points per route run against man coverage last season, more than the best Panther in this category (Thielen at 0.55) and well ahead of any other Carolina receivers. Johnson also coupled this with a PFF grade of 74.0 against zone coverage, which was 38th-best in the league, but still better than any Carolina wideout in 2023.

One thing that makes me nervous about pairing Johnson with an inexperienced QB who struggled in year one is his contested catch ability. Johnson caught less than 27% (four out of 15) of his contested targets last year, so while his ability to create separation bodes well, he’s clearly got some work to do on downs where that separation is harder to come by.

On the bright side, he’s moving out of the AFC North into the NFC South, with two of his three divisional opponents finishing in the bottom ten in pass defense a season ago.

CAN BRYCE YOUNG SUPPORT A FANTASY WR1?

Bryce Young was widely considered the obvious No. 1 pick in last year’s draft. But, after a disappointing 2-15 season in which Young threw almost as many interceptions as touchdowns, the spotlight is on him to improve drastically in year two.

Adding a receiving threat like Johnson should help, but will it be enough?

The beacon of hope we can turn to for this question is none other than Adam Thielen, who finished as the WR17 in his age-33 season last year. Unfortunately, Thielen was wildly inconsistent in 2023, finishing with just as many games under 15 receiving yards (three) as games with over 100 yards. Thielen is also a very different player than Johnson, lining up in the slot at one of the highest rates in the league, while Johnson ran only about 20% of routes from a slot position.

If Young is going to be able to adequately support a talented pass catcher like Diontae Johnson, he’s going to need to improve upon his dismal 21.5% bad throw rate from 2023, which was the worst of any qualified QB. He was also 31st in completion percentage despite just a 4% drop rate, which was eighth-lowest among QBs with over 300 attempts.

To be fair, anyone who watched a Panthers game in 2023 knows that Bryce Young wasn’t the only problem. Their offensive line was one of the league’s worst, as Young’s league-high 46 throwaways on the year show. However, the Panthers beefed up their offensive line by signing top-rated guard Robert Hunt from Miami and former Seahawks guard Damien Lewis.

“I think it’s pretty evident that our offensive line struggled at times last year,” GM Dan Morgan said at the NFL Combine. “We’ve got to get better in that area, and we’re going to do everything in our power to make that happen.”

But things are looking up in those departments as well. Carolina brought in Dave Canales as head coach, who oversaw Baker Mayfield‘s career resurgence last year and Geno Smith‘s the year before. And so far in free agency, Carolina has invested almost $90 million in guaranteed money to shore up their two guard spots, which were their two most consistent offensive line holes in 2023. Add in the acquisition of a true WR1, and Young is running out of excuses heading into his sophomore season.

DIONTAE JOHNSON 2024 FANTASY OUTLOOK

From a real-life standpoint, Diontae Johnson is an excellent addition for Carolina. His athleticism and ability to create separation downfield give Young another solid receiving option and will open up the short to intermediate passing game for guys like Thielen. But in terms of Johnson’s own fantasy value, I’m not convinced he’ll be better off than he was in Pittsburgh.

While Johnson will assume Thielen’s WR1 role from last year, his more accurate comp from Carolina’s 2023 roster is DJ Chark, who remains a free agent at this time. Chark and Johnson had comparable rates of slot vs. out wide positioning last season, and Chark ended up as WR59 with just 35 catches for 525 yards on the year.

The Wolf shares a similar sentiment, ranking Johnson at WR46 in his 2024 Fantasy Rankings and Big Board. It’s obvious that Diontae Johnson is talented, and Carolina is attempting to move in the right direction after a disappointing season. But it remains to be seen how this will all work out in 2024 and beyond and whether it means Johnson will be worth taking at his current 7th/8th round ADP.

Facebook
Twitter
Pinterest
LinkedIn

Most Popular

Related Posts