Stefon Diggs and the value of versatility

In the analytics-driven era of sports, we have been able to better put a value on the ability to do multiple things well.

Think of baseball players who can move from the outfield to third base seamlessly or shooting guards who can double as power forwards when called upon. Football has looked at tight ends and running backs as the most comparable to these versatile positions. If you have a tight end who can run routes and block, that’s a nightmare for opposing defenses. Over his entire career nobody stopped Rob Gronkowski. A running back who can play slot receiver is impossible for opposing defenses, just look at Christian McCaffrey’s first few years in the NFL.

We have started to look at certain positions on defense similarly. There’s a serious advantage to having a “hybrid” safety who can play linebacker or cornerback. Defensiacve linemen who can play linebacker, defensive end or three-technique defensive tackle give offenses fits.

We rarely think of this effect with wide receivers. They are categorized as slot or outside receivers but when we compare them to each other it is usually by the same metrics and methods. But as offenses become increasingly complex in their usage of personnel packages, formations and motions, the more things a single receiver can do the more value he has.

Over his career as a Viking, Stefon Diggs has shown that he can excel in all areas and that ability has helped him succeed while fellow star Adam Thielen has been out with a hamstring injury for the last seven quarters. He has a Ben Zobrist or Kevin Garnett element that can go unnoticed without closer examination.

Earlier this year, Mike Sando of The Athletic talked to NFL executives about the true “No. 1” receivers in the NFL. One evaluator compared Diggs and Thielen this way:

“I actually think Diggs is a better receiver than Thielen even though Thielen has the stats. I think you can line up Diggs inside and outside to get open. I think Diggs can do what Davante Adams can do, but they don’t use him in that role. The more outside Thielen is, I think you can cover him.”

When Diggs first came into the NFL he was considered too small to play outside receiver. His draft profile tabbed him as purely a slot guy and compared him to Harry Douglas.

“Doesn’t possess the strength or long speed to make a living as an outside receiver, but he can be an extremely effective weapon from the slot as a pro, turning short third-down throws into first downs,” wrote.

By the end of his rookie season he had already proven that assessment to be incorrect. By PFF’s “snaps by position” tracking, Diggs played 619 plays on the outside and just 92 as a slot receiver. He caught 56 passes at 13.3 yards per reception and Teddy Bridgewater had a 96.8 rating when throwing his way.

That changed the following year. In 2016 with Sam Bradford under center Diggs was in the slot for 401 plays and outside for 278 snaps. The result was an increase in catches and decrease in yards per attempt. He grabbed 84 passes at 10.8 yards per catch and Bradford’s rating was 106.2 when targeting Diggs.

Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur flipped Diggs and Thielen’s roles in 2017, moving Thielen inside, giving him more two-way go opportunities and pitting Diggs one-on-one with top outside corners. He lined up for 611 plays outside and 240 inside. Again the catch totals were not as high (78) but the yards per catch went up (13.5) and the results were excellent with a 116.7 rating from Case Keenum/Bradford when looking his way.

In 2018, John DeFilippo used Diggs outside at a very similar rate (636 outside to 225 slot) but gave Diggs yards-after-catch opportunities with short throws. Per NFLNextGen data, the average depth of target for Diggs in 2018 was just 8.9 yards. The previous season the average throw his way went 11.5 yards through the air.

Under Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak, Diggs has been used like he’s Julio Jones. He’s only lined up inside 62 times of 395 snaps and his average air yards per target is 14.9 yards — which is more than two yards more than Jones. Only 10 receivers have a higher average depth of target. Kirk Cousins has a 118.8 rating when targeting Diggs this year.

So to recap:

2015 — Diggs was a deep outside receiver, ranked 16th by PFF

2016 — Largely a slot receiver, ranked 21st

2017 — Slot and outside with more deep routes, ranked 7th

2018 — Short throws to the outside relying on YAC, ranked 15th

2019 — Pure deep threat, ranks 14th

Last Thursday in a win against Washington in which Diggs became the first Vikings receiver since Randy Moss to clear 140 yards in three games in a row, he played the highest number of slot snaps (12) this season. With Thielen out, he handled both jobs.

“For me I had to plan for everything, watch enough tape,” Diggs said after the game.

Diggs watches enough tape to not only succeed from different positions and in different roles but against different coverages as well. Matt Harmon of Yahoo! Sports tracks receiver route success rates. His numbers found Diggs was among the best in the NFL against man, zone and press coverage.

We can leave the debate to the evaluators on whether Thielen or Diggs is the better receiver but what we saw clearly over the last two weeks is that the versatility of a single receiver can be every bit as valuable as a catching/blocking tight end or a rushing/receiving running back or more.

And with Thielen likely to return (per the Star Tribune), the Vikings become even less predictable for the Chiefs and opponents going forward.

“Those two guys are two special football players so it allows you to balance the field out when they are on either side and I can imagine for defenses you could try to take one away or try to take both away but that’s where we have to have depth,” offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said. “And we do have depth at each of our positions and trust of each of our positions to make a play when teams want to take those guys away.”