Newly signed Stevie Johnson is coming off of a career low year in receptions since becoming a full-time starter in the NFL and missed the final 3 games of the season due to injury.
A former star with the Buffalo Bills, Stevie Johnson can be a huge addition for the San Diego Chargers, but the signing won't mean much if he's not healthy. If he is healthy, the soon-to-be-29-year-old is a tremendous addition to a wide receiver corp that struggled to get open in 2014. Let's get into what Johnson brings to the team.
Winning in the middle of the field
As a slot receiver, you have to be able to separate versus man coverage quickly. You also must be able to find soft spots in zone coverage and hold on against big hits coming from incoming linebackers or safeties. PFF has a statistic called "yards per route run", which I think is flawed, but it does value how effective a receiver is on a per route basis. In this case, Johnson was 4th in the league in yards per route run. Johnson passes the eye test as well. As a route runner, he's instantly an upgrade over Eddie Royal.
When he is 1-on-1 at the top of his route, Johnson is going to get open. Period. He's as unique a route runner as it gets. He wins with head fakes that defenders just can't keep up with. It dates back to his days with the Bills.
Johnson continued that with the 49ers this past year. This kind of separation makes for easy throws for your quarterback and creates big opportunities for yards after the catch. The subtle head fake goes a long way for Johnson.
In zone, it's more about being able to process what the defense is doing and creating windows for your quarterback. This is another area where Johnson excels at. It's not going to be flashy, but there are nuances to what Johnson does that not only help himself get open, but put him in a position to maximize yardage after the catch. Here's an example against the Rams.
Johnson recognizes zone coverage and as he goes to sit down, he gets width to create a bigger window for the quarterback. He could easily stay there and allow the linebacker two fewer steps to take, which in turn would create a contested catch. Perhaps with a more accurate pass, Johnson would have an opportunity to make the corner miss. With Philip Rivers' anticipation, Johnson should be even more productive from the slot.
Production opposite of Allen
The real reason that Johnson is an upgrade from Royal is that he can produce from not just the slot, but outside the numbers as well. This is an area where Royal got exposed towards the end of the year last year. The 49ers ran a ton of timing routes, specifically outs and curls, where Johnson was open and Colin Kaepernick's lack of anticipation and accuracy really hurt Johnson's ability to be productive. Two examples against Seattle come to mind. The first one is 3rd and 11. This should be an easy 1st down.
No wasted movement at the top of Johnson's route allows him to maintain separation against the corner. This should be easy pitch and catch, but the throw is so off target Johnson can't even get a hand on it. The next target was an incomplete pass against Richard Sherman. It was a simple 10 yard curl and Johnson was open for two whole seconds because of separation. Because Kaepernick lacks anticipation, by the time the throw had arrived, it was low and out of bounds. Johnson could not hold on.
Johnson isn't going to win any 40 yard dash contests, but he's very quick when he goes to break and that is why he will be successful with the Chargers. He's tailor-made for a west coast offense that features quick passing concepts and timing routes.
Sure Hands and Separation
Johnson is a good receiver when the ball is in his hands. He catches it, gets upfield, and makes the most of his opportunity. He was 11th in DVOA this past year. However, that doesn't really matter if you can't be counted on to make contested catches consistently.
Per PFF, Johnson had 37 catchable passes and only dropped 2 this year. One of the drops is the target I explained above, where he had to drag his feet and fully extend his body out of bounds, but just couldn't hold on to the ground.
This is important because separation on the outside is much harder to come by as opposed to the slot. Johnson's head fakes work much better when he has a 2-way go. It doesn't take long to realize that Johnson isn't a true vertical threat, meaning your speed thirst will have to wait until the draft and defenders can squat on Stevie's routes. At 6'2", Johnson has the size to shield defensive backs off and the strength to hang on after contact.
Of his 49 targets, 20 were contested and he caught 12 of them. That's factoring in big shots over the middle, so that is a very acceptable number. His ability to catch in traffic should go a long way in San Diego's offense.
Johnson has flaws, make no mistake. I mentioned how he's not a true burner. I also saw a few occasions where the DB was able to out jump him down the field. Those aren't deal breakers, but his unorthodox style hasn't just given defenders problems, it's given his quarterback issues, too. One thing that you will see is wasted movement to get open. While it works, quarterbacks have to hold the ball longer than they would like to see which direction he is going. In some cases, it works, and it looks really good.
In other cases, because the quarterback has no clue which direction Johnson is going, it led to incompletions and errant throws. What this does is throw off the timing of the routes. If Johnson can stay on schedule and still use these unorthodox moves to get open, he's a terror. At times, it just takes too long to develop and that is a potential problem.
Johnson is a fun player. If he can stay healthy, the Chargers just got a versatile weapon that is a great fit for their offense. If the Chargers want to add a receiver in the draft, he gives them that flexibility because he can win anywhere on the field. That doesn't limit San Diego's options. Johnson going from Ryan Fitzpatrick and Kaepernick to Philip Rivers is like going from an entry level sales job to the CEO. That big of a jump makes Johnson that much more dangerous and I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do.