The Buffalo Bills didn't quite dethrone the New England Patriots for the division title in 2019, but they were right there with them down to the wire, winning double-digit games for the first time since 1999. It was the second time in the last three years that head coach Sean McDermott got his team to the postseason, both times via Wild Card berths. But the two appearances both ended the same: in a one-and-done game on the opening weekend of the playoffs.
As for their latest shortcoming, that first playoff win of the 2000s was there for the taking. After going up 13-0 against the Houston Texans at the end of the half, and even extending that lead to 16-0 at one point, the Texans came back in dramatic fashion to win by a score of 22-19.
The Bills boasted one of the best defenses in the NFL last season with a steady offense on the other side. They are a young, talented roster with good leadership in the coaching staff and the front office. But going into the 2020 offseason they knew they still needed more. They knew they had to make a big splash in order to put themselves in prime position to win the division and host a playoff game in the football-crazed city of Buffalo for the first time since 1996.
That big splash was Stefon Diggs.
On March 20, 2020, the Bills traded their first-, fifth-, and sixth-round picks in the 2020 NFL Draft, and their fourth-round pick in 2021, to the Minnesota Vikings in exchange for Diggs. It was a move that was wildly celebrated amongst football media.
At 26 years old, Diggs is one of the best young receivers in the game. Though he has never made the Pro Bowl or an All-Pro list, the former fifth-round pick is known as a route-running assassin. His versatility, precision, and speed make him a deadly combination for offenses to use and defenses to fear.
Diggs’ presence overall should be a welcomed sight for Bills fans everywhere. Though they have a young quarterback with one of the strongest arms in the league, the Bills’ passing offense ranked 26th in the NFL with just 3,229 yards last season. Their 6.8 yards-per-play through the air was a bit better, but not by much, ranking 20th in the NFL.
As for Diggs himself, he’s coming off his second straight 1,000-yard season, so you know he’s used to being a focal point. But even better than that, he’s used to scoring touchdowns. His eight touchdowns in 2017, nine touchdowns in 2018, and six touchdowns in 2019 would have been team-highs in Buffalo in each season.
Diggs is also a guy who is used to plenty of targets. In his five seasons, the lowest target count on his resume was 84 when he played in just 13 games his rookie season. Since then, if you average out his target numbers for 16 games each year, Diggs goes over the 100 target mark every time.
Diggs’ new targets in Buffalo can’t come out of thin air; they have to come at the expense of someone else. The two top targets for quarterback Josh Allen last season were speedster John Brown and slot machine Cole Beasley. Each of these players saw north of 100 targets in 2019, and with the next closest on the team being seldom utilized tight end Dawson Knox with just 50, it is safe to say that Diggs’ targets will come from Brown and Beasley in some way.
Which of these receivers is poised to lose more targets to Diggs? To answer this, we have to identify what Diggs does well. The problem with that is the answer is almost everything.
Diggs is known as one of the best route-runners in the league. His fundamentals, quickness, and nuance allow him to win with a variety of different breaks both inside in numbers and to the sideline. Simply put, when you’re lined up against Diggs, you truly have no idea where he might be going on any given play.
That might lead us to believe Diggs would be more of a slot player, utilizing the opportunities of two-way gos in route options. That would mean he’d likely cut into Beasley’s action more. But there’s a Lee Corso “not so fast my friend” here to consider.
In an article written by the Minnesota sports blog Skol North, they highlight just how versatile Diggs has been throughout his career. By using Pro Football Focus’ snap by position category, they gather the following information.
Snap on outside: 619
Snaps in slot: 92
Snap on outside: 278
Snaps in slot: 401
Snap on outside: 611
Snaps in slot: 240
Snap on outside: 636
Snaps in slot: 225
2019 (Halfway Through):
Snap on outside: 395
Snaps in slot: 62
Skol North went on to detail what went into Diggs’ role in each of these seasons. Aside from 2016, the season in which he was primarily a slot receiver, and 2018, the year Minnesota decided to make Diggs a yards-after-catch guy, Diggs has been used as a deep threat. That analysis runs parallel to those seasons being his lowest in terms of yards-per-reception.
In 2019, Diggs averaged by far his highest yard-per-reception number at 17.9. The only wide receiver in the NFL to average a higher number with more catches is Lions receiver Kenny Golladay.
This is where I see Diggs being utilized in the Bills’ offense.
Buffalo needs more yards through the air. They have the speed of Brown to stretch the field deep, but they don’t have much of a threat outside of him to do so. Diggs is not only quick, fluid, and fast, he’s reliable deep, which is not a guarantee, even for speedy receivers. Diggs’ 67 percent contested catch rate would have led all Bills receivers, and, of course, his yards-per-catch average would have, too. Diggs also averaged 15 yards-per-target, which was ninth in the NFL.
The Bills want to open up their passing game. No matter how they choose to deploy Diggs, he will help them do so. But with Beasley already a viable option in the slot—although we will certainly still see Diggs work from the slot throughout the season—my prediction is Diggs will likely eat into Brown’s targets as an outside receiver and a deep threat player simply because he is the best option they have and the payout is without a doubt the highest in that role.
- May 16, 2022
- May 16, 2022