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Reception Perception: Stefon Diggs Shows Out in First Two Career Games

Matt Harmon uses his Reception Perception methodology to evaluate Stefon Diggs, the receiver that Teddy Bridgewater sobadly needed to emerge.

The statistics used in this column are those acquired from the Reception Perception methodology for evaluating wide receivers. To see full results of the project’s first full offseason, check out the tables at Backyard Banter. Additionally, use the #ReceptionPerception tag on Twitter to follow all the analysis from the series. Every week at Footballguys I'll profile one receiver whose recent numbers stand out as interesting. If you have a suggestion for the column, file it on Twitter.

I miss on my fair share of takes. I spend more time watching the wide receiver position than any sane human being should ever, but I still shank a few things every year. It looks like Stefon Diggs is set up to be one of my bigger misses from the 2015 wide receiver draft class.

I had Diggs ranked dreadfully low, as the 30th wide receiver available in the 2015 NFL Draft. In my notes, I just couldn’t find anything about him that stood out. However, that’s exactly what he’s done so far as a professional player. In his first two NFL games, Diggs has 13 catches for 216 yards on 18 targets. He’s stepped up among a pass catching group where a declining Mike Wallace is the only stable force at wide receiver, and that’s a generous label for him. Charles Johnson was a popular breakout candidate, but missed the last two games, and was ineffective when he was in the lineup. Despite not seeing game action until Week 4, Diggs looks like the most reliable receiver of the bunch.

Through all my studying of Diggs, I barely thought he’d be usable on an NFL field. Even just after two games, we can already declare that I was wrong on that one. Diggs looks to be carving out a niche role in the Vikings passing game, which fields a quarterback in desperate need of some help.

How excited should we get over Stefon Diggs, and just what can we project his role in the Vikings offense as? We saw strong production in his first two NFL games, but we need to find the sustainability levels. For that, we put those two contests under the Reception Perception microscope.

Alignment Data

  

Mike Wallace holds the role of the outside X-receiver in Norv Turner’s vertical offense. Players like Vincent Jackson and Josh Gordon held that role in the last decade. It appeared that Charles Johnson might fill that position, but Wallace held it down early in the season. 

Stefon Diggs doesn’t fit the same mold as any of those players. Sitting at just about six feet tall and under 200 pounds, he certainly doesn’t have the same frame as Jackson/Gordon/Johnson. He doesn’t play as fast as any of the aforementioned players. Nevertheless, Diggs plays the X spot now, while mixing in with some slot. He took 89.1 percent of his snaps on the line of scrimmage, and 70.3 percent on the left side of the field.

Teddy Bridgewater isn’t exactly a prolific downfield passer, and that’s a staple of the Turner offense. While he can make the deep throw, he’s far more comfortable working in the short to intermediate range of the field. At least from a positional standpoint and deployment, Diggs might be that guy.

Target Data

Stability is the last thing you think of when it comes to the Minnesota passing game, especially among the pass catchers. In the early portion of the season, outside of Wallace, not one player garnered more than seven targets in a single contest. Diggs insertion into the lineup brought some semblance of consistency.

When profiling Willie Snead IV last week, he was targeted on just over 26 percent of his routes run over a two game sample. Stefon Diggs carries a similar level of involvement in the Vikings offense, with 18 targets over his first two games. Diggs also carries a similar level of efficiency, catching a pass on 19.1 percent of his routes. There’s a lot to be said for a mid-round rookie stepping on the field and immediately stabilizing the passing game.

Back at Maryland, I thought Diggs displayed rough overall technique. Perhaps his mind just wasn’t focused with poor quarterback play hampering him, but his hands would come and go in college. In the NFL, he’s looked much more focused and in tune, so his technique looks much more proficient. He only had one eager drop over the two-game stretch, which came on a screen pass.

Diggs’ play in traffic is probably the most stunning part of his work at the NFL level. Despite a small frame, he’s consistently come down with contested catches:

 

While he’s not a dynamic small receiver in the contested catch game in the mold of Odell Beckham or Antonio Brown, Diggs shows the ability to work in traffic. Contact doesn’t bother him, and he won’t let a corner body him down the field. This sort of ability is crucial to the development of this player into a full-fledged starting caliber receiver. A 66.7 percent conversion rate on six attempts is a good enough sampling to get excited.

Success Rate Versus Coverage and Route Analysis

This is the part of Diggs’ game where we’re ready to be impressed. Even watching live in the broadcast view, it was easy to see the rookie running clean routes and earning separation from big named corners like Aqib Talib in his career debut. He followed up the optimism with a solid outing, albeit against a woeful Chiefs secondary, in Week 6 with more clean routes.

 

The two highest represented routes are the nine and curl. While Diggs has some speed to his game, his work in Minnesota hasn’t been that of a deep threat. However, In Norv Turner’s offense, the receivers will always be asked to run vertical patterns. Whether they’re targeted or not, that’s just how he opens up the field for the tight ends and the running game.

The curl route makes sense for Diggs, as it’s one of the more timing predicated patterns in the NFL. As mentioned earlier, Teddy Bridgewater’s strengths as a passer lie with his advanced understanding of timing and anticipatory throws. In a similar vein, the 10.3 percent of “other” route was largely comprised of back shoulder fades. Jordy Nelson perfected some of the nuanced timing portions of what it takes to make those routes work, and he combined with Aaron Rodgers to form a lethal tandem. Bridgewater and Diggs have light-years to go in approaching that level, but as a route runner, Diggs is off to a good start.

(SRVC denotes success rate versus coverage for each route. PTS indicates how many PPR fantasy points a receiver earned on each particular route) 

Let’s start with the outstanding. Again, just off watching the broadcast you could see multiple excellent out routes by Diggs. He scored a 100 percent SRVC on this particular pattern. The out was also his most productive route, as Diggs posted 11.2 PTS. It’s on this pattern where Diggs earned all the praise for being an outstanding route runner. He caught multiple passes, and created ample separation here. The way he’s able to deceive corners, and make quick breaks to the sidelines are indeed quite impressive. In some ways, he does remind of a young Antonio Brown when he was flashing early in his career. That’s not to say he will ever have the career Brown enjoys, but Mike Wallace did make that very comparison, as well.

Ability to control his speed in-route stands out as Diggs’ biggest strength. This is impressive, because its one of the biggest hurdles a young receiver must cross. In college, you can win by just being faster than the defender. When a rookie gets to the pros, they often don’t yet know how to accelerate and change speed while also running competent routes. Diggs does have the ability to control his speed in and out of breaks, which is why his curl, slant and dig route scores are so well above average. He hit the field and became a viable player in this offense because this style of receiver just speaks so well with Teddy Bridgewater’s strengths as a passer.

With all that being said, Diggs SRVC chart reveals some flaws in his game, as all three of his patterns in the deep segment of the game (post, nine, corner) carry a below average SRVC score. Despite running a 4.48 at the NFL combine, which in truth is more just about normal for his size, Diggs doesn’t show much play speed. His 26.7 percent SRVC on nine routes is frighteningly poor. He also doesn’t have the same creativity in the deep game at this point to create separation even when he can’t blow by people. We’ll have to see if he develops in this area, but if he can’t produce big plays, or win over the top, he has a capped ceiling in the NFL.

Of course, we are impressed with the first two showings provided by Stefon Diggs. He looks like a very solid pro in the making, which was better that I projected him as. However, let’s remember that despite some good route running and strong production, we don’t yet know for sure what this player will be:

For how impressive his route running was in large spurts over the two-game sample, it was odd to see his total SRVC scores check in as below average. Before pulling the parachute, let’s remember that his outright poor performance on deep patterns depresses his cores against man and zone coverage.

Diggs also faced an impossibly tough matchup in his first game, squaring off with the Denver cornerbacks. Chris Harris Jr and Aqib Talib are no joke, and Diggs’ SRVC scores from that game were much lower than what he amassed against the Chiefs. 

Of course, it’s worth monitoring Diggs’ game to see if there are aspects of it opponents can key in on, and therefore lower his statistical output in the future. Perhaps there are some hints in these poor SRVC scores that paint a cautionary tale regarding Diggs’ sustainability. However, I’d be inclined to contextualize the data with his strong showing in the short to intermediate routes, and just accept that he’s not a consistent deep threat at this point, which brought down his base SRVC scores (especially when you consider the nine was his most frequently run route).

The only number here that really worries me is the 51.9 percent SRVC against press. You always want to see small receivers own strong technique to earn a release, since the physical aspects of getting off the jam will always be an uphill battle for them. Brandin Cooks, another small player, was one of the worst SRVC performers against press in 2014, and his lack of development there is a big reason why he’s failed to meet expectations as a second-year player. Cooks is a far better athlete than Diggs, but not quite the technician. The latter will need to improve his performance against press to unlock a higher ceiling in his range of outcomes.

Going Forward

One must own up to their misses, and I’m already prepared to concede I did just that on Stefon Diggs. He’s already looked better than I ever imagined he would at the NFL level, and it’s only been two games.

Teddy Bridgewater badly needs a reliable presence in the passing game; a consistent asset he can lean on for passing production. It’s easy to see this substandard offense line and receiving corps has Bridgewater rattled, and lacking for confidence. The emergence of Diggs is just what the doctor ordered.

However, while I’m interested in this player’s development, gun to my head: I’d still bet Diggs levels off as a strong contributor and will face an uphill battle to emerge as a future star. We’re always quick to crown rookies in-season while their production sweeps us away. Yet, there are signs in Diggs game—his SRVC scores against press and in the deep game—that will need to improve if he wants to take his game to a higher level. Of course, just the fact that we’re talking about his game elevating before he’s even played his third NFL game is a tremendous compliment, and testament to what he’s already done. 

Stefon Diggs is shaping up to be one of the more interesting stories to watch in this season. Not many expected him to be squarely on the fantasy radar at this point in his young career. Better yet, he can emerge as a big piece in the Vikings season. Plenty of things are going right for this 3-2 squad, but their passing game has been slow off the tracks. Diggs might be the kick in the back they need.