By Brentley Weissman
In today’s NFL, it's all about the passing game. If you can’t move the ball through the air, you won’t be able to win many football games. It's never been easier for quarterbacks and receivers to succeed in the NFL as the league has changed the rules to ensure that the offense is able to pass the football. It's just smart business as the league recognizes that star quarterbacks and receivers are what generate ratings and sells tickets (in non-COVID years).
We are seeing some incredible seasons from NFL receivers in 2020, and it is clear that the league is in great hands, pun intended.
A few weeks back during the Monday Night Football game with the Los Angeles Rams and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Davante Adams tweeted out that Cooper Kupp is the most underrated receiver in the league. The tweet got a lot of attention and it was fun to see people chime in on who they believe is the most underrated pass-catcher. While I agree that Kupp is underrated, I couldn’t fully get on board with Adams' take.
When I began to think who I would consider to be the most underrated, plenty of names popped into my head. The first one that came to mind was Keenan Allen, who is playing like a top-three receiver in the NFL this season. The thing with Allen, however, is that he has been considered underrated for so long that at this point I do think that narrative has changed a little. If everyone thinks he’s underrated, then he probably isn’t underrated anymore. Everyone knows what Allen is about and how good he is.
The next name that came to mind was Washington’s Terry McLaurin, who, for a young receiver, has already established himself to be amongst the league’s best. I think he gets a little lost in the shuffle due to fellow second-year receivers D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown stealing the spotlight. I decided to not go with McLaurin for the fact that I don’t believe a receiver who has only played a little more than a year and half can be considered underrated; the sample size and length of play is just too small.
The more I sat and thought about who the most underrated receiver was, one name kept coming up for me: Buffalo Bills star receiver Stefon Diggs.
Now many of you reading this might be thinking, “Brentley, what are you talking about? Stefon Diggs is a stud and everyone knows that!” Yes, I do believe that the general public recognizes that Diggs is a great player, but do we recognize just how great he really is?
Diggs has been one of the most consistent receivers in the NFL from the moment he was drafted. Since entering the league as a fifth-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings in 2015, Diggs has had at least 720 yards, 52 receptions, and three touchdowns in every season he has played in. In fact, Diggs’ 5,568 career receiving yards rank 10th amongst receivers since 2015, while playing with below average quarterbacks and in a run-heavy scheme in Minnesota. Yet, with all that production, rarely do we see Diggs' name among the league’s best when we rank our top receivers. You’ll see names like Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, Michael Thomas, Tyreek Hill, Adams, and Allen in some order at the top, but Diggs is hardly mentioned in that tier.
It's easy to understand why Diggs may not be considered a top-five or six receiver and is more normally ranked somewhere between Nos. 8-12. For most of Diggs' tenure as a Viking, he had played with some pretty pedestrian quarterbacks. Catching passes from the likes of Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford, Case Keenum, and most recently Kirk Cousins, it's been anything but easy for Diggs—yet through it all he always produced. Additionally, playing alongside another great receiver in Adam Thielen was a detriment to Diggs' reputation as Thielen took a lot of targets but also media attention away. It was always Thielen and Diggs as a duo rather than Diggs getting the recognition that a true No. 1 receiver would normally garner.
Diggs eventually grew tired of catching passes from Cousins and he made it known that he wanted out of Minnesota so that he can show the league just how good he is and how well he can produce with a quarterback that would feed him the football. The Bills decided to trade for the disgruntled receiver in the offseason, surrendering a first and a few late-round picks. Well, as it turns out, Diggs was right to believe in himself and the Bills were right to make the trade.
In his first season with the Bills, Diggs has been on an absolute tear. He currently ranks second in receptions with 80, sixth in receiving yards with 945, and fifth in 20-plus yard receptions with 15. Diggs has been targeted 110 times this season, second most in the NFL. The amount of target volume Diggs has seen validates Diggs' belief that Cousins and the Vikings offense were holding him back, as he only received 94 targets all of last season. Now that Diggs is playing with a legit quarterback in Josh Allen and is the unquestioned go-to receiver, we are finally beginning to see just how dominant Diggs can be.
While in Minnesota, Diggs was often viewed as merely a big-play receiver who is somewhat one-dimensional and can only win on vertical routes. That notion is utterly and completely false. While Diggs does excel as a deep threat, I actually believe his greatest strength as a receiver is the work he does on the shorter and intermediate routes. Due to his combination of suddenness and body control, Diggs has been one of the best route-runners in all of football. He is almost uncoverable in one-on-one situations and is outstanding after the catch.
The conversation of who the most underrated receiver will always be a fun one. There are so many worthy candidates and it just goes to show how many talented receivers we have in the league today. While I understand that Diggs being a great receiver is a known fact, I just hope when we make our top-10 or 12 receiver lists that we understand that Diggs is a lot closer to No. 5 then he is No. 12.