Quentin Johnston: 'Right now is where I'm supposed to be'

ByKris Rhim ESPN logo
Friday, November 24, 2023

LOS ANGELES -- Two receivers separated by one pick in the 2023 NFL draft could be linked throughout the rest of their careers. Quentin Johnston, the Los Angeles Chargers' No. 21 pick, and Zay Flowers, the Baltimore Ravens' No. 22 selection, will meet for the first time this Sunday when the Ravens take on the Chargers "Sunday Night Football."

Through the first 11 weeks, their rookie seasons have been almost polar opposites.

Johnston's rookie year began on the sidelines. He started the season fourth on the depth chart, buried behind the Chargers' top three receivers: Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Joshua Palmer. Johnston played just 48 snaps through the first three weeks.

Johnston's usage increased when a torn ACL ended Williams' season in Week 3, but he still was somewhat of a non-factor.

Palmer began dealing with a knee sprain in Week 8 against the Chicago Bears, and Johnston moved into a starting role. Johnston had his best game of this season against the Bears, finishing with five catches for 50 yards.

"I knew that it hadn't gone our way, connecting with him the first couple of games, but I knew if we were patient, we were going to get him the ball, and something good is going to happen," quarterback Justin Herbert said. "He stepped up big-time today, and we're expecting big things from him."

The game felt like a turning point for Johnston, but he hasn't reached that mark since. He scored his first touchdown in Week 10 against the Detroit Lions but has been an afterthought in the offense since.

Johnston's lowest moment of the season came on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, where he dropped a wide-open pass that would have put the Chargers in field goal range with 23 seconds left in the game. After the game, Johnston, visibly upset, said there was "no excuse" for the miscue.

On Wednesday, Johnston told ESPN that his play in the Chargers' first 10 games was "hesitant" and not himself and that he plans to approach the next part of the season with a "mindset shift."

"Obviously, whatever I was doing at first wasn't working," Johnston said. "Honestly, I was kind of holding myself back a little bit. I feel like that's, in my mind, obviously just not acceptable. So I'm just kind of changing how I approach everything a little bit differently.

"... I didn't want it to be like this. I didn't want to start this slow, but that's how it happened. I can't go back and fix anything, but I can't fix what is ahead of me. So that's all I focus on."

In Baltimore, Flowers is on pace to have the best season for a rookie receiver in franchise history.

Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta and coach John Harbaugh selected Flowers just three years after taking Rashod Batemen in the first round to break the Ravens' long streak of disappointing first-round wide receivers. Flowers gives Lamar Jackson, the highest-paid player in franchise history, another weapon in an offense that for years has been lacking at the receiver position.

Baltimore has never drafted a receiver selected to the Pro Bowl, and only eight receivers have eclipsed 1,000 yards in the franchise's history. The Ravens have drafted six wide receivers in the first round in franchise history, and only Marquise "Hollywood" Brown, taken No. 25 overall in 2019, has eclipsed 1,000 yards in a single season.

From his first game, Flowers has made an impact. In Week 1 against the Houston Texans, he led all receivers with nine catches for 78 yards. He is up to 53 catches and 583 yards heading into Sunday, already the most receptions by a rookie receiver in franchise history and the second-most yards. Flowers said he's been "super comfortable" in his first year.

"I've got vets around me. I've got Lamar [Jackson]; I've got Mark [Andrews]," Flowers said. "So it's making my job easier to execute and be as detailed as possible."

Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey said during training camp that the hardest part about practice was defending Flowers. He's admired how Flowers has handled the pressure of being a first-round pick.

"When I was a first-rounder, you think, the 'B' word. You know you don't like that bust unless it's a Hall of Fame [bust]. That's something you try to get away from," Humphrey said. "Zay, I don't think anyone can even mention those words about Zay so far."

For the Chargers, patience with Johnston, who has 182 yards through the first 10 games, the fifth-worst among rookie first-round receivers in the past ten years, is simple, partly because of how Williams has evolved.

Williams, drafted No. 7 by the Chargers in 2017, had a worse start statistically than Johnston and was a significantly higher pick. Williams had 95 yards through his first 10 games, the second-lowest in the last 10 seasons for a rookie first-round receiver. But he has since emerged as one of the better receivers in the league, and the Chargers rewarded him with a three-year, $60 million contract in 2022.

"I feel like where I am right now is where I'm supposed to be on my journey," Johnston said. "Getting through this. Me just kind of figuring everything out. I'm not really worried about how I match over with everybody else right now because I know what I'm capable of, and I keep working at it every day until I get to that point."

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