How Diontae Johnson, Terry McLaurin became third-round NFL Draft steals in 2019

The pick that gets people up in arms when looking back on the 2019 NFL Draft is DK Metcalf going with the final selection of the second round. Eight wide receivers were taken before him, and it already looks like a big oversight. 

What fewer people do is scroll down to spot two of the next 13 picks after Metcalf: Diontae Johnson at No. 66 overall and Terry McLaurin at No. 76 overall. Both have turned into exciting second-year receivers in their own right, and they’ll face off on Monday night in Week 13 when the Steelers (11-0) host the Washington Football Team (4-7). Out of opposite ends of Ohio’s Division I spectrum, Johnson and McLaurin both underproduced in college to leave doubt about their NFL futures, but they’ve already solidifed themselves as two of football’s best young players.

Here’s a look back at the 2019 NFL Draft through the lenses of Johnson and McLaurin to see how they too were missed in favor of some potential busts. 

Diontae Johnson, Terry McLaurin in college

Johnson went to Toledo, while McLaurin went to Ohio State. While they’re both Division I football programs in the same state, they might as well be on opposite sides of the planet. The Buckeyes churn out NFL talent year after year, while the Rockets are a solid MAC school.

Neither was a hugely productive college player. Johnson had a good season as a sophomore, catching 74 passes and 13 touchdowns in the season after he broke his foot (which emerged as a red flag), but he regressed as a junior. And McLaurin never even had a hit, peaking with 35 catches for 701 yards as a junior (although with 11 touchdowns) while taking a back seat to Parris Campbell, who went ahead of both in 2019.

These situations were very different, yet they had a similar end result. Johnson didn’t prove his sophomore year was legitimate and had the injury history hanging over his head, which meant NFL teams didn’t know whether to trust one year of production in a small conference. McLaurin never produced huge numbers because there was so much talent around him, leaving clubs to wonder whether McLaurin could produce better in the pros than he had in college.

When NFL teams looked at the 2019 receiving class, there just appeared to be much more certainty elsewhere. The 5-10 Johnson and 6-0 McLaurin didn’t provide the tantalizing size of Metcalf to push aside some of the concerns about inconsistent production. They were just smaller receivers who’d flashed, worth a shot but not a huge investment.

Diontae Johnson at the NFL Combine: ‘I’m way faster than what I ran (in the 40)’

Johnson ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash, a discouraging time for a receiver that already had his height working against him. But when speaking with Steelers media after being drafted, Johnson said that he didn’t even train for the 40.

“Once I get the ball in my hands I’m way faster than what I ran in the 40,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s 3-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle times were both in just the 27th percentile of his receiving draft class, and he vertical jumped an underwhelming 33.5 inches. So NFL teams thinking about drafting Johnson needed to believe even more in that impressive sophomore season tape and not much else.

Terry McLaurin’s NFL Combine bolstered by 40-yard dash

Where McLaurin and Johnson diverge the most is in what the Combine meant to their draft stocks. While it may have hurt Johnson, it probably saved McLaurin’s draft stock.

The Ohio State product ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash (fifth among receivers), blazing speed that backed up his occasional big plays with the Buckeyes. He also had a 37.5-inch vertical leap and better 3-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle times than Johnson, and his 18 bench-press reps were top-10 among WRs.

How Diontae Johnson became a star with the Steelers

Johnson was always going to have to outproduce his testing numbers. While it could be viewed as one big lie that he’s faster with the ball in his hands than running the 40, that’s exactly what Johnson could prove to make himself a productive NFL player.

He joined the Steelers in the first year of the post-Antonio Brown era, which elevated JuJu Smith-Schuster and left a gap for someone to replace Brown’s do-everything productivity, especially out of the slot. Johnson didn’t burst out of the gates, but he caught touchdowns in Weeks 3 and 4 along with nine total receptions in those weeks to show he belonged. He closed out his rookie season with 23 catches across the final four weeks. 

“Diontae is as talented as any player we’ve had here,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner told The Toronto Star earlier in 2020. 

Johnson has become a crossing-route monster in 2020 for Ben Roethlisberger. Even though Big Ben’s arm strength appears sapped at times due to a 2019 elbow injury, he’s able to find Johnson over the middle of the field consistently. That led to career games in Weeks 10 and 11: Six catches for 116 yards followed by 12 catches for 111 yards.

Less than two years into his career, Johnson has proven himself right, that maybe the 40-yard dash wasn’t the indicator of his true ability. He’s just fine getting open and once he’s got the ball in his hands.

How Terry McLaurin became a star for Washington

McLaurin didn’t waste any time showing he belonged in the NFL. In his very first game, he caught five passes for 125 yards and a touchdown. He caught at least five passes and a touchdown each of the following two weeks, as well. It was quite the beginning for a player who didn’t find consistency at Ohio State.

It didn’t matter that McLaurin was playing alongside below average quarterbacking, because he got himself open and in position enough that even Washington’s struggling passers could find him. That’s continued into his second season, where McLaurin’s burning speed continues to be dangerous after the catch while his improved ball skills and routes have made him a more consistent threat.

“I challenged Terry earlier in the year to be a leader, because he’s got it in him,” Washington quarterback Kyle Allen told the Richmond Times Dispatch earlier this season. “He’s a game breaker player, but he also cares a lot. There are a lot of really good receivers in this league who don’t care as much as Terry does, and you can tell that he wants to be a leader. He wants to win. He doesn’t want to just get his, he wants to win.”

Washington still uses McLaurin’s speed by throwing deep to him early and often. He leads the NFL in air yards share, meaning the percentage of yards the ball travels to a particular receiver out of all a team’s passes. McLaurin’s rate is more than 45 percent of all of Washington’s air yards, showing everyone in D.C. recognizes the weapon McLaurin is and still can be. 

And if you want a simpler reason to like the chances of McLaurin continuing to succeed in the NFL, just watch him chase down Jaylon Smith.

It’s not quite the Metcalf chase down of Budda Baker, but it’s pretty darn similar, just as Johnson and McLaurin aren’t quite the Metcalf pick, but they too will have teams regretting draft selections for the next decade.

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