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What can early usage trends tell us about Stefon Diggs’ slow start

EAGAN — By almost any metric, Stefon Diggs has been one of the best receivers in the NFL since emerging as a starter for the Minnesota Vikings in 2015.

Per PFF, when throwing in his direction over the last four years, Vikings quarterbacks have registered quarterback ratings of 96.8 (2015), 106.2 (2016), 116.7 (2017) and 107.9 (2018).  He has ranked in the top 25 every year since being selected in the fifth round from Maryland and scored as high as seventh by PFF metrics. By traditional numbers, Diggs registered his first 100-catch, 1,000-yard season last year.

So while it has only been two weeks and is hardly time to hit any panic buttons about his three catches on nine targets, Diggs does have some usage numbers through two games that point to some notable trends.

In 2018 Diggs averaged 2.7 yards of separation per target, which was similar Michael Thomas, DeSean Jackson and Brandin Cooks. On nine targets over his first two games, he has the third least amount of separation on targets of anyone in the NFL at 1.7 yards.

Everything is small sample size with two games but one of the explanations for the lack of separation is the huge different in air yards per target. In 2018 the ball traveled 8.9 yards through the air per target while this year the average throw toward Diggs has gone 19.4 yards (per NFLNextGen stats).

The Vikings have said they want to run the ball and aim for explosive plays downfield. Using Diggs and an outside deep target, especially in bigger personnel packages, may be his role this season. He’s been lined up in the slot just 17% of the time. That’s a drop from 26% last year and more than 50% in 2016 (per Pro Football Focus). The Vikings have only used 11 personnel (three WR, one RB) on 38% of plays this year compared to 47% last season.

Through two games, three of the nine targets toward Diggs have gone for more than 20 yards through the air. Last season just 16.7% of throws his way went deep (23 total).

Here is a look (via NextGen) at the routes Diggs ran Sunday against the Packers vs. Week 11 in Chicago in which he made 13 catches last year.

Notice the majority of his receptions (in white) were on short throws and he gained a large percentage of his yards after the catch (green).

The Vikings’ ace receiver said on Wednesday that he will take on any role that his team needs.

“Being a part of a team and being a piece of a puzzle you have to bring your best every day, don’t be that guy, everything isn’t going to go right and I would never be the guy to be like, ‘well this or what about this,’ it doesn’t matter to me,” Diggs said. “What matters to me is that we play the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.”

Which approach is the correct way to use Diggs?

First it will take awhile to find out whether the (very) early trend continues. There is a case for both ways. As a slot receiver in 2018, Diggs ranked 10th in yards per route run (per PFF), scoring similar production to Antonio Brown and Julio Jones.

But as a deep receiver he is 20-for-20 over the last three years in bringing in “catchable balls” — meaning that if Cousins puts his downfield throw on target, Diggs is going to create a huge play.  He’s also ranked toward the top of the NFL every year in contested catches. Even if the scheme does not create separation for him with underneath plays over the middle, Diggs can simply beat his corner to the football on a regular basis.

Cousins has hit two of his three deep targets to Diggs so far, including a 45-yard touchdown. Last year he only went 6-for-23 on passes beyond 20 yards.

On the whole the passing game has not been impressive with 17 teams averaging more net yards per attempt than the Vikings. A deeper look at the coaches tape reveals that Diggs had a strong day getting open but only came away with one reception. He took responsibility Wednesday for not finding a way to knock down Cousins’ late-game interception in the end zone.

Also if the Vikings continue to have issues throwing off play-actions and bootlegs (Cousins is 7-for-14 on play-action) that will impact the number of deep receptions from Diggs.

He said that no matter Cousins’ struggles, receivers will aim to put him in positions to succeed.

“I know from my perspective, being a receiver is hard in itself, you need a lot of things to go right, the whole play needs to go right for you to get the ball,” Diggs said. “You can’t imagine how it is to be a quarterback and the amount of things that they go through mentally for preparation just to go out there and be successful. In a game like that when…things aren’t going perfect we have to pick him up and we have to give that positive energy and have success as an offense because at the end of the day that’s all that matters.”

It will be worth watching whether the Vikings adapt Diggs’ role and the strategy to look for deep passes off play-action throws as the season goes along or if he ultimately ends up getting more quick targets and opportunities in the slot.


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