Star wide receivers aren’t supposed to work out well in the first year. Generally, teams that lose star wide receivers see more of an immediate impact than the ones that add them, especially in Year 1. That wasn’t the case this season. The two biggest wide receiver additions completely changed the ceiling and expectations of their new offenses. The Buffalo Bills wouldn’t be ready to square off against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game without Stefon Diggs.
In his first year with Buffalo, Diggs led the NFL in targets, receptions, and receiving yards. Sports Info Solutions has him first among pass-catchers in Expected Points Added. It’s safe to say the immediate impact was made.
The production itself is impressive but the way in which Diggs and the Bills figured out how best to use the receiver stands out more, especially given the offseason circumstances.
With the Minnesota Vikings, Diggs was viewed as one of the league’s best deep ball receivers and was expected to help Josh Allen develop more accuracy to that part of the field. The deep shots certainly opened up as Allen easily had his best season on throws of at least 20 air yards with his highest on-target rate and completion percentage by a significant margin.
Josh Allen 20+ Air Yard Attempts, 2018-2020
Diggs wasn’t the lone factor there, though, or really even the biggest. Rookie Gabriel Davis led the team with targets over 20 air yards and Diggs’s deep production was nearly identical to that of Cole Beasley.
Buffalo Bills Deep Targets, 2020
There is certainly some gravity theory in play here as Diggs drew the focus of the defense, which allowed for others to get open. But where Diggs made his mark was in the short-to-intermediate area of the field, specifically on curls and comebacks. Last year with the Vikings, Diggs was targeted 18 times on a curl or comeback, according to SIS data. That target figure was the same in 2018. This season, Diggs has been targeted on curls or comebacks 59 times. Those targets have resulted in 51 receptions (86.4% catch rate), 510 yards, and 26 first downs (44.1% first down rate).
Not only is this a stark change from how Diggs has been used in the past, it’s the heaviest use of that route by a wide receiver over the past five seasons. Below is a chart of the 200 most-targeted player seasons on curls and comebacks. Diggs’s 2020 season is the dot all the way up to the right.
The Bills have spammed Diggs on these routes like someone who figured out the one button in Tekken or Mortal Kombat that works every time. It even makes sense why Buffalo has done this.
Because Diggs is still so respected as a deep receiver, cornerbacks are consistently waiting for Diggs to test them over the top. The Bills have used the expectation to break Diggs off his vertical stem, which has regularly left an open throw for Allen.
Diggs often uses that vertical set up to force the opposing cornerback to flip his hips in preparation to run deep down the field. As soon as the corner makes that move, Diggs can break away to create separation. Here he does that at the top of the screen against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 4.
Occasionally, Diggs set up the vertical stem (and the opposing cornerback) so well that the space created left room for yards after the catch, something that doesn’t typically come with these types of routes which force the receiver to stop his feet to make the catch.
65 players since 2016 had at least 20 curl/comeback receptions in a season. Diggs’s 2020 ranked first in yards after the catch thanks to volume and 23rd in yards after the catch per reception. There can be less room to create yards after the catch on these plays to the outside, where Diggs had most of his receptions. Among that group of players, Travis Kelce’s 2020 season had the highest yards after the catch per reception mark as he did most of his damage in the middle of the field. The same can be said for most of the other top seasons, which also includes Kelce’s 2017 and the 2016 season from Michael Thomas.
Against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 9, Diggs made room to create those extra yards against Quinton Dunbar. Before the snap, Dunbar had already started to bail, which helped Diggs even more on his break. Dunbar’s momentum carried him so far down the field, he couldn’t react in time and Diggs turned to the middle of the field for more yards.
Here’s a more isolated shot of the play. Dunbar bailed off the line, but Diggs waited for the corner to fully commit to running downfield with his hips before he turned around for the catch.
This wasn’t just a smooth finesse strategy, either. Diggs was also able to make this a more physical route when needed. That could work at the top of the route…
…or if that was needed off the line.
On that play against Pittsburgh’s Courtland Sutton in Week 14, Sutton got stuck between trying to press Diggs, getting depth, and setting up for the possible shallow break. All of that got the cornerback off balance and sent him flying back with just a little bit of hand-fighting.
Buffalo has continued with this in the playoffs. Even the threat of it helped the Bills score against the Indianapolis Colts. Indianapolis cornerback T.J. Carrie was so prepared to break on a Diggs comeback in the Wild Card Round that he got caught flat-footed when Diggs kept going vertically and ran right by him for a touchdown.
Diggs had three targets, two receptions, and 43 yards on curls/comebacks against the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Round. On this play, Diggs motioned from the slot across the formation to the outside. Marlon Humphrey followed, indicating man coverage. Diggs set up Humphrey vertically with an outside release before he broke off. The throw inside gave Diggs an opening to break the corner’s tackle and gain a few extra yards.
The other place the Bills have shifted Diggs’s role has been his work in the slot. Diggs has spent more time in the slot with Buffalo than he did during his time in Minnesota. Granted, there aren’t a lot of slot opportunities when only two receivers are on the field in 21 personnel, but that’s also the point. Including the playoffs, Diggs had almost the same number of targets, more receptions and yards than he did in his previous two seasons with the Vikings combined.
Stefon Diggs Slot Production, 2018-2020 (including playoffs)
Diggs had the 11th-most targets from the slot and ranked third in EPA on those targets. He was also third in positive play rate (the percentage of plays with positive EPA) on targets from the slot (69.9%) behind Beasley (71.7%) and Davante Adams (70.5%).
Using Diggs from the slot has also gotten him some favorable matchups. Against the Ravens, Diggs lined up as the inside man in a trips set. He was matched up against Tramon Williams and away from Humphrey or Marcus Peters. The Bills again rode with Diggs selling the vertical stem off the line. He took an inside release off the line and was helped by a pick set from the inside linebacker who ran into Williams while he chased the running back motion across the field. By the time Diggs turned his route to the outside, Williams had already been turned around multiple times and had no chance to catch Diggs.
Much of Diggs’s production in the playoffs has come from his work in the slot, where nine of his 20 targets have come over the past two games. From the slot, Diggs has 10.5 EPA (1.17 EPA per target) and a 100% positive play rate.
The addition of Diggs has completely transformed the Buffalo passing game but the Bills have done just as much to transform what Diggs can accomplish as a wide receiver to make that happen. Should the Bills make the Super Bowl, this connection between Diggs and Allen will have played a huge part in perhaps the most successful Year 1 addition of a star receiver.