Since the season began, Johnston has been buried on the depth chart behind the Chargers' top trio of pass-catchers in Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Joshua Palmer. The Chargers say this was the plan for Johnston all along.
Coach Brandon Staley said in July they would bring Johnston along slowly, and that’s held true. Staley said the slow ramp-up for their first-round pick isn’t because Johnston isn’t ready, but rather because of the talent ahead of him.
But that timeline has shifted. Williams suffered a season-ending ACL tear in Sunday’s win against the Minnesota Vikings. The Chargers no longer have the luxury of keeping their first-round receiver hidden on the sidelines.
“We believe in the makeup of this guy, and now he's going to get a bigger opportunity because there are going to be more opportunities available for him,” Staley said. “So it's a great chance for him to step up.”
The Chargers drafted Johnston out of TCU after a junior season when he emerged as one of college football’s best receivers. Johnston had 1,069 yards and six touchdowns, helping lead TCU to the National Championship game.
Staley lauded the 6-foot-3, 208-pound receiver for his ability after the catch and as a “weapon to score the ball whenever he touches it.”
But the college version of Johnston hasn’t translated to the NFL, though he hasn’t had much opportunity. During training camp, Johnston’s play fluctuated, and he briefly struggled with drops. He’s played just 48 snaps this season and caught five passes for 26 yards.
The other three wide receivers drafted in the first round, Zay Flowers of the Baltimore Ravens, Jordan Addison of the Vikings and Jaxon Smith-Njigba of the Seattle Seahawks, meanwhile, have flourished in their offenses.
They have each played at least 95 snaps, with Flowers having the most at 169.
Sunday’s game was the first time Johnston shared the field with one of his first-round peers in Addison, and the difference in their contribution was significant. Addison played 55 snaps and caught eight passes for 52 yards, more than Johnston has done all season.
Johnston told ESPN that he doesn’t go out of his way to look at what the receivers drafted around him are doing, but he sees it when it appears on TV and recognizes why fans would be frustrated with the difference in stats. But he isn’t focused on chasing those players.
“I’ve never really just been a guy who focuses on what everybody else is doing,” Johnston said, adding that being behind on the depth chart was frustrating “in a way,” but that what he has learned by watching from the sideline and in receiver meetings has eased his NFL transition.
In college, for example, Johnston would focus on making defenders miss after catching the ball, but he’s quickly learned from conversations and watching his teammates about the importance of simply getting downfield.
“So I’m not really going to focus on the shake so much,” Johnston said, “just getting downfield as fast as I can until I just really get a feel of the game.”
Ultimately, Johnston was always going to have somewhat of an uphill climb to seeing significant playing time. Allen and Williams are considered among the best at the position, both making $20 million annually, and Palmer caught 72 passes last season as Allen and Williams missed games with injuries.
Then there is running back Austin Ekeler, who led the team with 107 receptions last year. But with Ekeler nursing an ankle injury and Williams done for the season, Johnston will get his opportunity to prove himself -- and the Chargers -- right.
“Those other receivers who were drafted to different situations did not go into a receiver situation like this one,” Staley said. “And we drafted Quentin with the belief in the player and long-term vision. And now he's gonna get a bigger opportunity, you know, and, and now you're gonna get to see more of him … we’re really happy with him, and now he's gonna get to shine in a bigger way now.”