The late rounds of the NFL Draft are events that the most casual fans rarely pay attention to. The hit and miss rate for the latter half are extremely one-sided, but sometimes some teams strike gold.
The best example to date is Steelers receiver Antonio Brown. Arguably one of the best in the game, the small school receiver (Central Michigan) was an after-thought after being drafted in the sixth-round of the 2010 draft.
Despite being in the prime of his career, the No. 195 overall selection has already blossomed into one of the best players in franchise history.
It is still early, but the Minnesota Vikings are feeling as if they have potentially struck gold. In 2015, the franchise drafted receiver Stefon Diggs in the fifth-round.
Diggs was highly touted out of high school, but in his career at Maryland he was often injured. Missing the final six games of his sophomore season due to a broken fibula, Diggs bounced back to have a marginal junior season for the Terrapins — collecting 62 catches, 792 yards and five touchdowns.
Not eye-popping stats, but Diggs made plenty of wow plays as a return man and for an offense that struggled mightily. The talented receiver continued his career with the Vikings, but once again he faced some adversity.
Inactive for the first three games of his rookie season, Diggs finally got his chance in Week 4 vs. the Denver Broncos.
Since that moment, he has not looked back.
Registering six catches along with 87 yards in his NFL debut, Diggs has shined as the teams go-to option since his unexpected debut, but what made him seem so NFL ready so quickly?
Lets take a look.
Route-running. It’s a term that’s closely attached to receivers, obviously because it is one of the biggest traits that they are judged upon. A lot of times we hear the terms “route-tree” or “specific routes” used when describing certain receivers.
The best receivers in the league are able to master a certain package of routes, but are able to present them in different ways — meaning that if their offense asks them to run primarily hitches, slants and out routes, the best threats have ways of making them look different.
This is an area where Diggs excels at. Playing with primarily vertical targets like Mike Wallace and Cordarrelle Patterson in his career, he was rarely asked to stretch the field vertically.
Not to say that he is incapable of doing it, because he is, but that is not where he is best utilized.
The Vikings used Diggs all over the field last season, but his talents were more on display in Pat Shurmur’s offense due to more open sets and a quick game timing based passing attack.
A perfect system to display his talents, Diggs thrived in 2016.
He is a receiver that I like to call who is “quicker than fast”. He is a very quick twitch receiver that is able to be make extremely violent movements with his body in the blink of an eye, but he doesn’t have the longevity of speed to consistently run past defensive backs.
He is capable of playing outside receiver, but this is a big reason why Diggs is best utilized in a slot receiver role. There he can take advantage of matchups with nickel corners, overhang safeties and linebackers depending on the package that the defense is in.
Going back to his rookie season, Diggs showed his quick twitch abilities early on. One of the factors that’s special about him is that he always has a plan when running routes. He rarely ever just runs a route just to be running it.
In the example above, Diggs understands that he’s matched up against one of the best up-and-coming cornerbacks in the league in Marcus Peters. Knowing this, Diggs uses Peters’ aggressiveness to his advantage.
Diggs knows that he’s running a 10-yard out route. Pre-snap, Peters already has the natural outside leverage on him.
It is extremely difficult for a receiver to gain the outside of the defender when he’s already taking it away before the ball is snapped.
What is Diggs’ plan of attack?
He starts off by giving a slight foot fire (stuttering of the feet) at the line of scrimmage. This freezes Peters and allows Diggs to get a read on the exact technique that Peters is trying to play against him.
Pre-snap it seems that Peters is playing man-to-man coverage due to his technique and his eyes being on Diggs’ chest. Those are clear indicators of man coverage.
After Diggs performs his foot fire, he attacks Peters inside shoulder. This poses an immediate threat to Peters as it seems that Diggs is running a vertical route to the inside of him.
The slight detail in this route is what made it savvy.
As stated above, Peters is an extremely aggressive corner, that makes a living off of jumping underneath patterns. Watch as Diggs looks back at the quarterback, signaling to Peters that the ball may be coming soon.
Knowing this, Diggs’ plan to attack the inside shoulder is brilliant because it shields the defender from being able to defend anything to the sideline as well as the direct sight line to the quarterback. It also gives Diggs the leverage and space to snap off an out-breaking route, which is what he did.
As Diggs breaks off his out-route, Peters has no chance due to all of his momentum moving up-field. He has to completely turn his back to Diggs in order to catch up to him.
By then, it is too late due to the quick movements of the smart receiver.
Nuance and angles are two important keys to route-running. Diggs has both.
He has a special gift in that he understands how to make defenders go where he wants them to go, as opposed to the defender navigating the receiver where they want to take them.
As discussed earlier, slants, hitches/curls and out-routes were the majority types of routes that he ran.
Showing a savvy plan of attack on each, let’s take a look at a curl route Diggs ran in the teams Week 13 contest vs. the Dallas Cowboys.
Matched up against Brandon Carr, a talented corner, Diggs understands that he’s facing a taller (6’0″) defender. When facing taller corners, many receivers understand that some struggle to quickly change directions or keep pace.
Running what seems to be a deep curl or comeback route, Diggs once again gives a quick foot-fire at the line of scrimmage to assess the technique that Carr is playing.
Once he successfully diagnoses Carr’s technique, he understands that he has to sell the vertical route to his outside shoulder in order to get the defender to flip his hips and run up-field.
Diggs knows that he can beat him once he stops his route and also that there will be a split second difference between his movements and Carr’s due to him being a lengthy corner.
What also makes this route great by the third-year receiver is the violence at the top of the route, where he throws Carr’s hands out of the way.
This throwaway keeps Carr’s momentum going up-field and it also makes his length a non-factor in the quarterbacks vision and the pathway of the ball.
Unless it is an occasional shot down the field or a mismatch, Shurmur does not ask Diggs to take the top off of the defense very often.
During Week 8, Shurmur took shots down the field more often than he has against any other opponent. It paid dividends on this play.
He doesn’t run an extremely high amount of post, go, or deep crossing routes. With the Bears limited secondary, the Vikings wanted to exploit their weaknesses though.
Due to the Chicago secondary playing a high amount of man-to-man coverage, the team attempted to isolate their best receiver in Diggs against one of the Bears young corners in De’Vante Bausby.
On this play, the Vikings ran a “scissors” concept — meaning that the outside receiver has a post route, while the No. 2 (slot) receiver, in this case tight end Kyle Rudolph, has a corner route.
Pre-snap, Diggs sees that the corner immediately takes away the outside. Knowing this, instead of taking a quick foot-fire at the line like he normally does, he takes a slight step outward.
With the defender already taking away the outside, the slight outward step opens up the defender even more — giving Diggs more room to work with inside.
Understanding that he has a deeper route and a passing concept that takes longer to develop, he has more time win on his route.
After the outward step, Diggs explodes up-field, but he “stacks” the corner. A receiver stacking a defender is a commonly used term to describe a receiver running directly over top of the corner.
This disables Bausby from ever catching up and running hip-to-hip alongside Diggs.
Once he stacks the defender, he violently snaps his route in-ward towards the goal post.
Diggs again showed his high football I.Q., as he doesn’t flash his hands until the ball is directly on him. Once they are beaten, defensive backs are taught to read the arms of the receiver.
As a defender, the receiver reaching up for the ball gives you a key on when the ball is about to arrive.
He does a good job of executing the catch by shielding the defender away and trapping the ball comfortably against his body to secure it, as opposed to fully extending and giving the defender a chance to knock his arms or the ball down.
Nuance, the understanding of angles, and savvy are the big components on why the Vikings feel as if they have potentially struck gold with the fifth-round selection of Stefon Diggs two years ago.
He’s proven to be a bright spot on a receiving corps that hasn’t had a 1,000 yard receiver since Sidney Rice accomplished the feat in 2009.
With his continued progression and tremendous route-running, Diggs has a chance to be among some of the best receivers in the league.
Of course, staying healthy and continued production are huge factors. If Diggs is able to accomplish both of those, he will be a prime breakout candidate in 2017.
For NFL news and draft analysis, follow J.R. on Twitter @JReidDraftScout.