The Patriots are once again scouring the market for offensive weapons through the various avenues of player acquisition; free agents, trades, and draft picks are all on the table.
Over the last few seasons, New England has pimped out first-round picks looking for a stud pass-catcher, eventually drafting N’Keal Harry with their top selection a year ago. They also put up with Josh Gordon, took a chance on Antonio Brown, and sent a second-rounder to Atlanta for Mohamad Sanu searching for answers. None of those moves netted great results yet, but the effort was there and will continue to be there this offseason.
Things getting interesting …
— DIGGS (@stefondiggs) February 15, 2020
One of the apples of Bill Belichick’s eye remains Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs, who recently scrubbed his social media accounts of all things Vikings before sending out cryptic tweets, how 2020 of him.
The Patriots closely monitored the Diggs situation during the 2019 season. Diggs and the Vikings kissed and made up then, but now Minnesota finds themselves in a bit of a cap dilemma, and Diggs is hot and cold still on his future in Minnesota.
The Vikings are running dangerously low on cap space and might need to shed salary before the start of the league year to be cap compliant. And with ten players that have cap hits of over $10 million next season, something has to give, and trading Diggs could be a solution.
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) February 19, 2020
NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero threw water on the fire, saying, for now, Diggs’s social media antics were “just Stefon being Stefon,” and a move like this would also be unprecedented for Belichick.
The Patriots traded a first-round pick for Brandin Cooks in 2017, but Cooks was still on his rookie deal. Trading valuable draft capital and taking on a massive contract, like $47.5 million over the next four years for Diggs, is a move we’ve never seen Belichick make.
However, times are changing, and Belichick seems willing to pay market value for receiver help, which hasn’t always been the case for The Hoodie over the years.
Belichick shipped Cooks to LA instead of giving him the bag, keeps things in check with Julian Edelman, and there are other examples such as Deion Branch’s holdout and eventual trade in the early part of the dynasty.
Last offseason, though, the Patriots made a late offer to Titans receiver Adam Humphries that exceeded $10 million per year, showing that Belichick will make competitive pitches. Diggs’s cap hit of $11.5 million for the 2020 season is within range, especially given his talents.
And that brings us to Diggs’s on-field production, where he’s arguably the league’s best route runner and led the NFL in contested catch rate over the last three seasons, per PFF.
The Patriots need receivers that can create separation, and Diggs’s blend of speed, quickness, and nuance saw him average over 2.5 yards of separation per target. He’s a perfect fit.
For Diggs and many great route runners, his success starts at the line of scrimmage with lateral agility and sudden explosiveness in his releases to beat man coverage.
Going up against Packers corner Jaire Alexander, Diggs runs a fade from a reduced split, giving him room to work along the sideline. Diggs uses a stretch release against Alexander’s soft press technique. By stuttering inside at the snap, he gets Alexander to move that way, creating an unimpeded path to the sideline. Once Diggs has Alexander leaning, he sinks his hips and keeps his shoulders level, along with light and quick feet, he easily changes directions to release outside. From there, he holds his line, stacking Alexander to protect the catch point, using his body to shield Alexander from the ball and tucks the ball away from the Packers corner for a touchdown.
The Vikings wideout is also a technician at the top of his routes, losing defensive backs with expert-level setups, cuts, and acceleration through his route breaks.
Here, Diggs breaks Tramon Williams’s ankles by attacking the near hip and getting into the defenders’ blind spot. Diggs runs his initial stem at Williams’s outside hip, which forces the Packers corner to flip his hips towards the sideline. Once he opens up Williams, Diggs cuts inside to get into the blind spot behind Williams, and the Packers CB loses him completely.
We also see Diggs’s route running prowess in the red zone and down by the goal line.
On this game-winning touchdown, Diggs runs a quick slant-and-go and fools the defender with his eyes and hips (pointed inside) into thinking it’s a slant. The defender’s instinct, once he sees Diggs’s release and sell inside, are to look into the backfield for the ball, knowing this, Diggs keeps his pads low, plants hard, and quickly shakes the defensive back on his break as he effortlessly transitions his hips upfield for the score.
Lastly, there are Diggs’s highlight-reel contested catches, where he converted 61.1 percent of his contested targets into receptions over the last three seasons (leads NFL).
Some of Diggs’s contested grabs are him elevating above the defense and using wicked strong hands to snag the ball out of the air, but he’s also a wizard at keeping the catch point clean.
Diggs’s quickness in his release once again creates easy access to the sideline against 49ers corner Ahkello Witherspoon. Witherspoon tries to battle back, but Diggs swats Witherspoon’s hands aside and then gets Witherspoon with a forearm pull when the Niners corner tries to get his hands on him again. The hand-fighting by Diggs keeps the catch point protected, presenting a spot for Kirk Cousins to drop the ball into, making it an easier completion.
We could have fun breaking down Diggs tape all day, but the plays above sum up how smooth and electric he is, making him one of the league’s best receivers.
Why would the Vikings trade an immensely talented 26-year-old receiver that isn’t breaking the bank financially? A potentially deteriorating relationship and cap issues might be the answer.
And if Diggs is on the block, the Patriots should make the trade.