Reception Perception: Steve Johnson is the Surest Sleeper Around

Matt Harmon uses his Reception Perception methodology to show why Steve Johnson is a sleeper you can safely bank on.

The statistics used in this column are those acquired from the Reception Perception methodology for evaluating wide receivers. To see full results of the project’s first full offseason, check out the tables at Backyard Banter. Additionally, use the #ReceptionPerception tag on Twitter to follow all the analysis from the series.

I won’t bury the lede here; Steve Johnson was one of the best under the radar acquisitions in free agency. The veteran receiver is poised for a nice bounce back year in San Diego after starting just one game for the 49ers last season. Much like former teammate Michael Crabtree, Johnson was the victim of a quarterback who failed to utilize good route running receivers, or develop chemistry with multiple weapons. Moving to a Philip Rivers led offense in San Diego was a near perfect choice for a career revival.

Not impressed with this take, now that Evan Silva and others in the fantasy community have been pumping up his stock? I know; I slacked off on delivering this one to you. If only I had actually gotten around to writing this article over 140 days ago at the conclusion of his Reception Perception charting…

In fairness, when we learned of Antonio Gates’ four-game suspension, I once again tried to dust off this post.

Whoops. That article sure took awhile to finally get done. Forgive me, readers, for I have failed you in the task to unleash the, what could have been, biggest Reception Perception sleeper. Better late than never, let’s examine why Steve Johnson is a no brainer to pay off his WR50 ADP.

Alignment Data

Red indicates the figure is below the NFL average, Green is above and Yellow is within one percentage point.

One attribute that the Chargers will certainly enjoy with Steve Johnson in the fold is the veteran’s ability to play all three-receiver spots. The player he is replacing, and commonly compared to, Eddie Royal, was strictly a slot asset in the San Diego passing game. Royal’s quickness helps him get free from coverage underneath, but he is not a consistent down field threat, and lacks the physicality to succeed outside.

Johnson can play in Royal’s departed slot spot. 31.6 percent of the snaps over his 2014 Reception Perception sample came from that position. However, Johnson could begin to siphon snaps from long-time, and soon to be retired, Charger Malcolm Floyd. Johnson split snaps on the outside and inside fairly evenly. He could also help Keenan Allen out by taking some reps at flanker, which would allow the latter to slide inside. The two receivers have similar skill sets; one that Rivers enjoys throwing to. Rivers’ rate of producing 1,000-yard receivers is lower than you would imagine from a long-entrenched elite passer. He likes to spread the ball around. Do not rule out a scenario where Johnson, if the relationship forms and progresses, checks in with a target rate rather close to Allen’s than we expect, comes season’s end.

Target Data

Naturally, this is the area where Steve Johnson falls short. He was targeted on, a below NFL average rate, 23.5 percent of the 170 routes from his Reception Perception sample. The San Francisco passing offense was incredibly unstable. Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis floundered, while only Anquan Boldin remained afloat. There was never a chance for Johnson to get enough looks as the third receiver.

While not the most efficient receiver (56.9 percent catch rate for his career) Johnson is still no liability. He finished right within the league average, catching a pass on 15.9 percent of the routes he ran. Johnson presented a good target for his quarterback, but the relationship never truly developed.

Overly-rigid scouts may not find Johnson an appealing watch. There is a bit of an unruly nature to his play. This was reflected in his league average drop rate, failing to secure five percent of his targets in the sample. However, as you will see, Johnson gets the job done despite a style of play that a textbook lover some may not be able to digest smoothly.

Success Rate Versus Coverage Data and Route Analysis

Steve Johnson recorded three straight 1,000-yard campaigns during his age 24 to 26 seasons. He did so on some terrible Buffalo teams, to boot. And yet, it seems as if the only time Johnson was ever in the national spotlight came when he gave All-World cornerback, Darrelle Revis, fits in their face-offs. Game commentators would fawn, and cameras zoom in on, this non-superstar wide receiver getting open against one of the league’s best coverage men. These performances were not outliers, as Johnson has long been one of the NFL’s best route runners.

 

Johnson clocked in higher than the NFL average on three routes; the slant, curl and flat. Never a wildly athletic deep threat, Johnson instead thrives in the short to intermediate areas of the field.

When Norv Turner patrolled the sideline, the offense and Philip Rivers revolved around a deep passing game that took shots at the sidelines. Ever since Mike McCoy took the head job in San Diego, the team morphed into a quick strike attack. The routes Johnson runs most often will fit right into that playbook, as will his ability to get open:

 

(SRVC denotes success rate versus coverage for each route. PTS indicates how many PPR fantasy points a receiver earned on each particular route)

The three patterns Johnson ran at a rate above the NFL average were some of his best. He scored well on slants and curls. His SRVC on curls (87.1 percent) was particularly robust. Johnson can shuffle his feet with great timing to break off routes at the stem, and reverse course to present a stable target for his quarterback. 

Johnson is just as proficient at sifting through underneath coverage to get open on slants and flats. When a quarterback is in trouble, he knows Johnson will be there, open in the short areas for a reliable catch. The dig and out routes are two of the more difficult patterns for receivers, even some of the NFL’s best, to effectively execute. Steve Johnson blew past the league average for both. 

In fact, Johnson only scored below Reception Perception’s charted average on three routes. For the most part, whatever he was assigned in 2014, he completed with effectiveness:

 

No matter the coverage call, Johnson can defeat it. He scored above the NFL average on each of the four brands of SRVC. He could handle whatever the defense threw at him. More impressively, Johnson’s scores against man and press coverage were both above the 90th percentile recorded in Reception Perception. Context matters, but his numbers were reminiscent of some of the league’s best wide receivers.

Of course, it was in limited snaps, but his SRVC scores reveal that the veteran receiver can still get it done. A disadvantageous situation covered up the reality that Steve Johnson did not see any decline in his individual play. Now paired with the best quarterback, by far, he’s ever played alongside, Johnson is set to turn these SRVC scores into raw production once more.

Contested catch and in space data 

Not just a pristine route runner, Johnson can also make plays in tight coverage. His seven-contested catch attempts figure over an eight-game sample was on the low side. Yet, he still fared quite well, hauling in 71.4 percent of them. 

So much of making plays in the contested situations is about fearless confidence. Let us recall when Johnson lifted up his jersey as a Buffalo Bill to reveal a “why so serious” undershirt. It’s clear this is an individual who does not lack for a belief in himself. That sort of mindset, in addition to strong technique and functional strength, allows him to make plays on passes in traffic.

 

While nothing about his athletic measuables screams “playmaker”, Johnson is functional with the ball in his hands. The 49ers got him out “in space” on 11.2 percent of his routes, which was above the NFL average. Johnson’s high usage rates on slants and flats certainly played a role here. He broke at least one tackle at a high rate, and was one of the better receivers charted at eluding the first defender. 

The San Diego passing attack focuses on Rivers using his precision to hit receivers in stride, allowing them to function on these “in space” attempts. Once again, their newest signing should fit right in. 

Conclusions and going forward

Reception Perception speaks loudly on Steve Johnson. His scores, in every department, were so strong it’s hard to envision a scenario where he does not make a major statistical bounce back. Scoring over the 90th percentile against man and press coverage, while maintaining healthy route balance, is no small feat. 

Personally, I’d feel less bullish on Johnson’s Reception Perception sample if it were not painfully similar to Michael Crabtree’s data. Perhaps I’d be willing to write Johnson’s numbers off due to sample size or some sort of fluke otherwise. However, both former 49ers receivers scored so well in the nuanced aspects of the position, and displayed excellent route technique it’s almost impossible to not turn the blame back at the other common denominators between them.

If you’re versed in the nuances of the wide receiver position, and have an open mind to scouting the players, it’s hard to not turn on Stevie Johnson’s film and become surprisingly overwhelmed. Reception Perception quantifies what he does well, and how it will fit in with the Chargers flourishing offense. Not only should he be a positive force and a receiver upgrade for his team, the returns will spill over to the stat sheet. Johnson will post numbers in 2015 reminiscent of his heyday with Buffalo.

Reception Perception is over 140 days too late in naming Steve Johnson it’s biggest sleeper for the 2015 season. He’s already been on the rise, as many smart analysts began to connect the dots and observe the storylines progressing. However, let Reception Perception be the one last push you needed in making sure you bookmark Steve Johnson as a take-it-to-the-bank bargain this season. When Johnson, and less so Ladarius Green, reaps the benefits of Antonio Gates’ four-game suspension at the onset of the season, the masses will catch up. You will not need to see it first to know it’s coming.