Pick by pick analysis of the first round of the NFL Draft: 21-31
The players, the schemes, the fits, the decisions
21. Los Angeles Chargers: Quentin Johnston, WR, TCU
That sound you hear is Justin Herbert singing hosannas to the football Gods.
The Chargers’ stilted offense needs a jolt of electricity. Johnston will provide that.
Johnston sat at the top of my receiver board. I understand the knocks: there are too many concentration drops; he plays smaller than his frame; he didn’t run a full route tree in college. But that’s an awful lot of focus on what he does not do or what he’s asked not to do. When you analyze what he was asked to do, and his role within that, you see the potential.
Sure, he’ll drop the ball. He will be frustrating. He will not boast the kind of down-to-down efficiency that marks out the best receivers as The Best. That’s all true. But he is a threat to generate an explosive play at any moment. He is a natural at turning from receiver to runner.
The best matchup to focus on is his one-on-one duel with Kansas State’s Julius Brents – as detailed here.
Brents has NFL size and speed. He’s smart. He might sneak into the back-end of the first round. And Johnstone pulverized him in press coverage. It was everything you want to see from a receiver versus press: he narrowed his target; he was aggressive; he attacked at the right time, not too early or too late; he used his hands as a springboard into the route rather than wasting movement in the hand fight and then looking to break off; he was snappy out of his break; he created after the catch.
Johnston is a master at shrinking his strike zone. He’s a big corner who wants to play small, so he condenses and closes his frame to limit how much space there is for a corner to target.
Check out the rep a time or two. One-on-one against Brents, Johnston bursts open. Brents goes for a two-hand pop. But he plays wide. Johnstone shrinks. Brents is longer than Johnstone. He should be able to put a clamp on the receiver before Johnstone can even get into his route, let alone shake free, right?
Not quite. Johnston taught Brents a lesson about the importance of timing and location of press coverage. Brents beat Johnstone to the punch a fraction early, but he was too wide. He laid a glove on Johnston, but not a true punch. Johnston, in contrast, delivered one, short, sharp, explosive pop, timed just as he wanted to exit his break, and not a moment earlier.
Brents was in a solid position. He probably felt comfortable within the rep. And then, all of a sudden. Thwack. Johnston was gone.
It wasn’t a one-time incident. Johnston lit Brents up seven times in straight man-to-man, press coverage. It was the same formula each time: timing and pop can beats length and passivity.
Losing those opening exchanges had a knock-on effect. As the matchup against Johnston unfurled, Brents was fed up with losing. So, he decided simply not to engage in the hand fight at all, to play the show and mirror game, a no-no against a receiver with such short area quickness.
Oops. Checkmate. Game, Johnston.
True, there are more refined receivers than Johnston. There will probably be players who are less frustrating on a snap-to-snap basis. But Johnston is the most likely receiver from this class to consistently create explosive plays. He is a threat down the field. He is a threat after the catch — Johnston forced 19 missed tackles last season.
Does he create separation late in the rep or in the intermediate portion of the field? Not as much as you would like. That can be a problem in pro offenses, which are less susceptible to the pump-or-dump, Air-Raid style that Johnston excelled in in college.
But this isn’t some high-flyer with little nous to his game. Johnson separates quickly and efficiently vs. press. He separates quickly and efficiently on quick-breaking, in-breaking routes. And once he does, he provides a massive target to quarterbacks. And then with the ball in his hands, he’s lethal after the catch — Johnston is the best receiver-to-runner of this group
With Mike Williams, Keenan Allen and Johnston, the Chargers have a massive wide receiver room. They can mess around with alignments and hunt mismatches. All those long limbs reduce the margin for error for Herbet – not that he needs much. Adding a true deep threat should help push back the coverage, too, making it less cramped for Williams and Allen as they operate from their natural habitats, underneath and in the intermediate zones.
The size of the room alone will produce some interesting schematic wrinkles. Put those guys in a three-man bunch, as Kellen Moore, the new Chargers OC, is want to do, and it will be tough for any defense to feel confident matching up to that kind of length at the point. Allowing Johnston and Williams to get out in the pattern without some disruption should be a non-starter, but finding a solution that works with that trio bunched together will be tricky.
Johnston may never become the anchor of a passing game. But as a third banana who could eventually graduate into the second role, he’s ideal. He will create splash plays. And if that’s all he provides Herbert and the Chargers’ offense early on, that’s a win.
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