Fantasy Football Debate: Marquise Brown vs. Diontae Johnson

Two fantasy WR2s with very different offensive situations are selected in the fourth round of the 2022 fantasy football draft. Mike Randle represents Diontae Johnson, while Brendan Darr represents Marquise Brown.


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The case for Diontae Johnson

Mike: Marquise Brown had a nice season for the Ravens in 2021, but to paraphrase the late Lloyd Bentsen, he’s no Diontae Johnson.

Brown’s career-best season, however, only produced a WR21 PPR finish, well behind Johnson’s WR8 season total. While that might be reason enough, here are the top four reasons why Johnson is a superior pick for the upcoming fantasy season.

Quarterback

Brown has now moved to Arizona and is playing with a superior quarterback in Kyler Murray. However, Johnson could actually see improved quarterback play without the now-retired Ben Roethlisberger. The former Steelers signal caller ranked just 24th among all quarterbacks in true completion percentage (68.7%) while finishing an abysmal 29th in deep ball completion percentage (PlayerProfiler). In short, Roethlisberger just wasn’t good.

A move to Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback could actually help Johnson. Trubisky has averaged under 7.0 yards per attempt in four of his five NFL seasons, including 6.1 yards per attempt in the 2020 season in which he completed a career-high 516 pass attempts. According to PlayerProfiler, his completion percentage on deep balls has consistently ranked outside the top 20 quarterbacks, indicating that he prefers to attack in the short to intermediate part of the field. This is where Diontae Johnson thrives.

The passing offense may not change that much under Trubisky, and Johnson already showed a superior production profile in the same system last year with Roethlisberger.

Target competition

The targets are deserved, something Johnson has been doing at an elite level for the past two seasons. Johnson ranked third in targets since 2020, more than Justin Jefferson or Stefon Diggs (StatMuse).

Johnson wins by getting open, something that ranks among the NFL’s elite wide receivers. He ranked No. 10 in 2021 separation targets, compared to Brown’s mediocre ranking of No. 26 overall. Despite Brown’s superior 4.32 speed, he was just 20th in yards after the catch. This is the very definition of a “feast or famine” wide receiver; the opposite of the Johnson volume vacuum.

At 5-foot-9, 166 lbs, Brown lacks the size of a true WR1. He needs volume, which certainly won’t come when DeAndre Hopkins returns from his six-game suspension. Throw in an offseason speeding arrest and switching teams, and Brown’s range of outcomes is significantly greater than Johnson’s.

The targeted competition argument also works in Johnson’s favor. Not only does Brown have to contend with the return of Hopkins, but also the superior pass-catching tight end of Zach Ertz. From Weeks 11-18, Ertz ranked third among all tackles (61) and second in receptions (42). How can Brown have a better fantasy season than Johnson when he is the third receiving option on his team?

Consistency

Weekly success is required to win your redraft fantasy league. You need players who provide consistency. Best Ball formats are much better for fickle players. As long as a player produces quality stats at the end of the year, week-to-week volatility doesn’t matter.

For redraft leagues, it’s very different. You have to plan each week by setting a schedule. Relying on your best wide receivers is key to getting as many weekly wins as possible to make the playoffs. Over the past two seasons, there is no comparison between the consistency of Johnson and Brown.

  • 2020 Season: Brown (0 WR1 Weeks, 4 WR2 Weeks, 8 Non-WR3 Weeks)
  • 2020 Season: Johnson (6 WR1 weeks, 1 WR2 week, 5 weeks off WR3)
  • 2021 Season: Brown (3 WR1, 3 WR2, 7 weeks off WR3)
  • 2021 season: Johnson (4 WR1, 7 WR2, 1 week off WR3)

Brown’s volatility is better served for Best Ball formats. His current UnderdogFantasy ADP of WR18 is still three spots higher than his year-end ranking in Baltimore, where he saw the seventh-most targets (145) of any wide receiver. While Kyler Murray is a more accurate quarterback than Lamar Jackson, Brown needs consistent targets to limit his weekly volatility. His spot on this Arizona roster won’t improve that weekly variance.

Schedule

Finally, let’s take a look at the fantastic football stretch drive. Both players have challenging schedules based on last year’s defensive fantasy positional rankings. From Weeks 1-17, both teams rank among the five toughest schedules for fantasy wide receiver production.

However, the critical time to recreate the fantasy playoff is Weeks 11-15, which marks the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs. During those weeks, Johnson will face the eighth easiest opponent schedule, while Brown faces the toughest opponent schedule.

  • Steelers Weeks 11-15 Schedule: Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Baltimore, Carolina
  • Cardinals Weeks 11-15 Schedule: San Francisco, LA Chargers, BYE, New England, at Denver

That’s a clear advantage for Johnson, especially considering the Cardinals are in a bad position heading into the Week 13 bye. In the most important time of the fantasy season, why pick a WR2 with a tougher schedule over a dominant WR1 with a much easier schedule?

Johnson beat Brown in every major fantasy area except quarterback. However, with Johnson’s success with Roethlisberger last year, superior target share, less competition and a better late-season schedule, I’m taking Johnson over the Cardinals’ newly acquired speedster every time. Brendan is a great analyst, but he’s backing the wrong horse in this race.

The case for Marquise Brown

Brendan: This argument might have been a little more difficult a year ago, but Marquise Brown, even at the price, over Diontae Johnson is still a real play. Marquise Brown gets the benefit of a better offensive system, a better quarterback and less competition — especially in the first six weeks of the 2022 season.

If only this debate series could be that easy.

Brown checks in with an ADP of 40.4 (WR18), while Johnson is a half-round later at 47 (WR23). And this is how each team stacks up on available targets and air yards:

Available targets and air yards
The team Air Yards Air Yards% Objectives Target % Inside 10 inside 10% WR
Arizona Cardinals 1296 29.90% 166 29.10% 8 20.50% 103
Pittsburgh Steelers 1236 28% 163 24.90% 9 20.40% 138

As you can see, both teams have about the same number of targets to replace and a similar number of yards to replace. What the chart doesn’t take into account is that the Cardinals will be without WR DeAndre Hopkins (ADP 74, WR36) and his 64 targets in just 10 games for the first six weeks. Both situations are loaded with a lot of uncertainty, so it’s more instructive to look at where things can go wrong.

There is clearly some risk here with Brown. He is moving from an offense that had fewer touchdowns in Arizona (705) than his former team Baltimore (745) and even fewer than Pittsburgh (754). That’s not a major deciding factor, but it speaks to the issues fantasy managers had with Cardinals HC Kliff Kingsbury and his more conservative approach than we expected coming out of Texas Tech. While Brown will serve as Arizona’s WR1 for the first six weeks, he will be moved into more of a WR2 role after that. One stat that doesn’t help my case is yards per route run per PFF – Brown finished 50th of 94 qualifiers in 2021 with a 1.61 Y/RR (Johnson finished 27th at 1.83).

Johnson still has to deal with one of the worst quarterbacks in the league with either Mitch Trubisky or Kenny Pickett under center. Combine that with a questionable at-best offensive line and a team that could use more running to take pressure off the quarterbacks, and it’s hard to envision another 169-target season for Johnson. Add to that, while the Steelers dealt Juja Smith-Schuster and James Washington from the offense, they still have Chase Claypool, an up-and-coming tight end in Pat Friermuth, and also added George Pickens in the second round and Calvin Austin in the fourth round.

Brown should immediately benefit from new QB Kyler Murray’s improved deep ball accuracy over Lamar Jackson.

Between his college connection with Murray and the improved deep ball accuracy he should see this year, Brown is in for a big year. He already had a 15.8% target rate and showed the ability to be the best receiver in the offense. Now he has six weeks to prove it and continue to earn a significant target share after DeAndre Hopkins returns.

Granted, a lot of the numbers will point to Johnson based on recent history and I’m not against drafting him. However, with an upgrade in the passing game combined with a quarterback who can better utilize it, Brown would be the pick when I’m on the clock.


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