Rookie wideout Stefon Diggs bided his time at the start of the season as he ran with the second-stringers in practice and wore sweats on the sideline on Sundays.
He figured an opportunity eventually would present itself and vowed he would be ready. And he was, quickly becoming quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s go-to receiver.
Sounds a lot like Charles Johnson last season, doesn’t it?
In 2014, Johnson took over for an unproductive Cordarrelle Patterson in the second half of the season and led the Vikings in receiving yards down the stretch.
Expectations spiked for Johnson heading into this season. But he had just six catches for 46 yards in 2½ games before a rib injury sidelined him. He missed his second consecutive game Sunday, spanning the Vikings’ bye week, and a speedy rookie seized the opportunity.
Coach Mike Zimmer declined to say Monday whether Diggs had stolen the starting split end job away from his injured teammate. But it is clear that it is a strong possibility.
“You don’t lose your starting job because of injury,” Zimmer said. “But you lose your starting job because of performance.”
There certainly was a lot to like about the performance of Diggs, one of several Vikings rookies making an impact this season, in his first two NFL games.
The fifth-round pick from Maryland caught six passes for 87 yards in his debut two weeks ago at Denver. He was even more productive in Sunday’s 16-10 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, leading all players with seven catches and 129 receiving yards in his first career start. He played 57 of 70 offensive snaps, tops among Vikings receivers.
“I take my craft seriously,” Diggs said. “I knew I had potential but I was just waiting for my opportunity. I trust my coaches. They put me in the best position to be successful.”
Bridgewater targeted him 19 times in those two games, tied for the team lead with Mike Wallace. Wallace totaled 10 catches for 106 yards on those targets. Diggs, meanwhile, snagged 13 passes for 216 yards, the most for a Vikings rookie in his first two games since Jim Brim, a replacement player during the 1987 strike.
“We know that this league waits for no one,” Bridgewater said. “With all the young guys stepping up making big plays in this league, I’m happy to see Stefon contribute for the Vikings.”
In this year’s NFL draft, 19 wide receivers were selected before Diggs, including six in the first round. So far, only Oakland’s Amari Cooper, the fourth overall selection, and Washington’s Jamison Crowder, a fourth-round pick, have more receiving yards. But both have played at least three more games than Diggs.
Wallace said that even before Diggs burst onto the scene in Denver, the 21-year-old reminded him of an old teammate with the Steelers. You might have heard of Antonio Brown, the 2014 All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowl player, before. Brown was also a late-round pick, but Wallace said the comparison is based on ability, not background.
“I always felt like he could play from Day 1,” Wallace said of Diggs. “Just the skill set, the way he runs his routes, the energy that he has. It reminds me of [Brown].”
Diggs responded, “There’s a lot more plays to be made out there before I get to that point.”
That was a good answer from the kid. Zimmer said, “I plan on keeping him humble,” but it sounds like that probably won’t require too much effort on the coach’s part.
About 15 minutes before Diggs politely deflected praise in the glare of several cameras, Johnson tried to slip through the locker room without any recognition. Stopped just before he ducked into the training room, he said that his rib “wasn’t all the way ready to where I wanted it to be” Sunday, which is why he was held out again.
He seemed surprised when asked if he felt additional urgency to get back on the field after watching Diggs make big play after big play Sunday.
“No, I know he can make the plays. I know our other receivers can make plays,” Johnson said. “I’m just trying to get out there and do what I do.”
Diggs said he would understand if Johnson reclaims his starting gig upon returning.
“I will accept my role just like I did before … and do whatever they need me to do,” he said.
But with the way Diggs has stood out during his first two games in an otherwise spotty passing attack, it’s hard to fathom the rookie not hanging on to a significant role.