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Los Angeles, We've Got a Problem...
I want all prospects to succeed. Even if I'm lower on a player than the consensus, I want that player to develop into a productive team member, make good money, and accumulate the tools and resources necessary to build a worthwhile life. If pro football is the career he truly wants, I hope he can make it work.
This is probably one of the tougher stretches of Quentin Johnston's life. He may be earning more money than he's ever seen in his life, but that fame and fortune of a first-round draft pick and a label as one of the best rookie receivers of 2023's class. That billing comes with the expectation Johnston delivers production.
After 10 games, Johnston has earned 50 yards once. The next highest outing is a 34-yard game in Week 10 against the Lions where he scores his first and only touchdown of the season.
On Sunday against the Packers, Johnston once again dropped multiple passes, including this potential game-winner late.
This play has become the tipping point for much of the media to proclaim him a bust. Google his game, and that's what you'll see at the top of the page.
Click on the Twitter post above and you'll see a mix of commentary. Fans who are disappointed with Johnston's rookie year and trashing him to fans who are defending his struggles with comparisons to other players who ultimately had success.
My favorite of those is the follower who used Christian Watson as a point of comparison because it shows he reads my work and remembers my analysis of Watson's egregious drop in the opener after he beat Patrick Peterson like a drum. Unfortunately, there's a big difference between Watson's drops and Johnston's drops.
The Pre-Draft RSP Scouting Report and Clips on Johnston
As I wrote in the 2022 Rookie Scouting Portfolio in Watson's evaluation, "While capable of difficult catches that require athletic adjustments, high-level tracking, and/or contact with a defender to win the ball, Watson has lapses with attacking targets that lead to unforced errors. Because the proper technique isn't foreign to him with any type of target, these issues are more lapses in detail than a problem that will require Watson to re-work his approach to pass-catching."
I wish this was the same for Johnston. Here's the complete elevator pitch for Johnston from the 2023 RSP:
If you believe that Johnston will address his catching technique, he’s at least the No.2 receiver in this class, just behind Jaxon Smith-Njigba. If you don’t believe it will happen, Johnston could be no more than a situational contributor who delivers big-plays in a limited role—big enough for starter production in some offenses, but he won’t be the primary option.
It’s a big swing and there’s good reasons to side in either direction. There’s also logic splitting the difference.
Johnston is capable of making catches in every scenario expected from a receiver. He can high-point, win back-shoulder targets, earn jump-backs against tight coverage, win with the appropriate overhand and underhand technique based on the trajectory of the target, and make difficult catches against hard contact.
Johnston will also drop the ball more than one should expect from a top prospect because he is still using the incorrect attack for the trajectory of targets as often as he uses the correct attack. He’s using underhand position, clap-attacks, and clap-trap techniques for targets that should be caught with overhand position away from the body because of the position of his coverage and the trajectory of the ball. He drops a lot of tight-coverage targets in the vertical game because of these lapses.
And, when Johnston uses the correct attack, he’s often not fluid with securing the ball. He often looks like he’s uncomfortable with using the optimal technique and fights the ball just enough that there’s a delay between the initial catch, securing the ball firmly in his hands, and bringing the ball to his body.
Johnston is sometimes getting away with this on Saturday and he’ll probably get away with it in the NFL. The legitimate concern is that he’ll only get away with it for so long before his rate of drops becomes an issue that prevents him from reaching his ceiling. See Gabriel Davis and his 54% catch rate with the Bills.
If you want an example who was a first-round pick, see Robert Meachem, who played with one of the most accurate passers in NFL history and dropped 63.1 percent of his passes with the Saints. In contrast, Michael Thomas’ catch rate is 77%. Meachem, like Johnston, was trying to use the correct hand positions during his final season at Tennessee but also looked uncomfortable doing so. For most of his career, using his hands in the optimal way looked like he was solving math equations.
Johnston doesn’t always look like he’s solving math equations when using the optimal technique, but it’s happening often enough to project it as a potential obstacle to his development. He’s also still using sub-optimal technique choices and dropping the ball.
Here’s the thing about evaluating receivers, everything else about a player’s game can say “future star,” but if the player can’t catch the ball reliably enough—even if they sometimes do it picture-perfect in challenging situations—it can lead to that player losing the confidence of the coaching staff and labeled unreliable. It can also get into the head of the player.
Johnston isn’t in this position, but his career could deteriorate this way if his hands techniques and outcomes remain as inconsistent as they’ve been.
I could continue Johnston’s elevator pitch with a summary listing everything else about his game, but the easiest thing to say is that Braylon Edwards and Kevin White were excellent prospects with similar skills, traits, physical dimensions, and occasional hands issues. Edwards and White were more consistent than Johnston.
If Johnston figures out how to reduce the inconsistencies to a manageable rate, he can be a top-15 talent with top-5 statistical upside in any give year. If he can’t, he could wind up a situational contributor by year three, on the bench by year four, and searching for an opportunity with a league-wide label about his hands in year five.
I placed Johnson’s pass-catching skills in the Committee Tier. However, I also gave him two bonuses in that tier because, A) the issues with his technique are addressable and B) Johnston often uses the correct techniques in most situations and catching the ball—it can look less fluid, but he’s doing it.
To me, that indicates he has the upside to limit this problem to a low factor or non-factor with his game. As a result, Johnston is at the bottom of the first tier of receivers. If you project he’ll become a starter-caliber pass catcher with improvable moments/occasional technique lapses (most NFL starting receivers), Johnston would be the No.1 receiver in the class if you moved his pass-catching to the Starter Tiers and gave him the improvement bonus instead of having him in the Committee Tier with an improvement and upside bonuses.
The best projections in these situations require the player to prove that improvement will happen while awarding him some amount of value if there are signs, albeit inconsistent that the work is being done and good outcomes are occasionally happening.
In contrast, if I were of the mindset that until Johnston eliminates the sub-optimal techniques altogether, then he would not have gotten the upside bonus. This would drop Johnston to the bottom of my second tier of receivers or even the top of the third tier as a low-end rotational starter—a player who looks like a starter in a lot of scenarios but lacks a complete game and may not be a full-time starter.
I think it’s important to share this thought process because it spells out how his catching technique could lead to a wide variance of outcomes for Johnston’s value over the next 2-3 seasons. Obviously, I thought the most logical way to grade Johnston is not to award full credit for starter moments because he hasn’t proven that he’s performing at that consistent rate while also honoring that some gains have been made and there’s potential for more to come.
This is essentially a 7-point differential in his grade +/- 3.5 points and that’s nearly the range of a talent tier, which is logical for a skill central to the job.
So, would I draft Johnston as a Tier I wide receiver and invest his expected draft value? Personally, I wouldn’t. If he were a third-round selection, I’d take the chance—reality or fantasy.
But the first round? There are too many cases where hands issues remain a problem and his issues are multi-faceted. Although addressable with careful work, it’s hard to say whether an early-round draft status won’t enable Johnston to believe that he’s already good enough and make other facets of the game and his new life a higher priority—at least until the problem gets the attention of fans and coaches and now he’s under more pressure to fix it or he’s going to the bench.
Of course, this is the fun part of the game. If you take the risk and you’re right, you’re probably getting a perennial top-15 producer for a period of 4-6 years after his initial acclimation to the league. While some think my job is to tell them what to do, my actual job is to lay out the likely scenarios, the risks, the upside, and the options for you to choose.
As you can see, Watson's issues were lapses rooted in bad choices or lack of concentration. Johnston's issues appeared more deep-rooted and even when he was executing the correct techniques, he didn't appear fluid or comfortable doing it.
Quentin Johnston often earns good position to draw DPIs. He also often uses suboptimal hands position that prevents him from cutting out a dependency on the official as a middleman for big plays #nfldraft pic.twitter.com/OxyDeFgKNo— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) February 8, 2023
Quentin Johnston with an impressive catch. It will be even more impressive if he can become the third WR I have scouted in 18 years who can produce consistently enough with suboptimal hands positions at the catch point. #nfldraft— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) February 8, 2023
Golden Tate-Terry McLaurin if you wondered… pic.twitter.com/BixK84reFy
Quentin Johnston did everything to make this play work up to his hand position late in the play.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) March 2, 2023
It’s the story of his overall game at this point. Romeo Doubs had a similar story last year. pic.twitter.com/FB0clUgAsL
The lack of comfort and fluidity — even when performing the correct techniques — are indicative of a ball-tracking issue. Wide receivers who can't gauge the ball's trajectory in real-time and make the appropriate adjustment of position and attack don't last long in the NFL.
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