With the QB room in chaos, the new superstar RB getting initiated into the ‘Three Knees’ club, and the Vikings coming off the heels of a frustrating 14-7 home loss to the Detroit Lions, there is one shimmering positive that can’t be ignored: the transcendent performance of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. The duo leads the NFL with 749 combined receiving yards, despite Case Keenum’s up-and-down performance (as can be expected from a backup). Diggs leads the league in individual receiving yards with Thielen ranking third. But total receiving yards can be a mirage. Some offenses pass more than others. Some offenses ask different things of their receivers, whether it’s deeper passes or more yards after the catch. Some receivers can be extraordinarily efficient while others thrive on high volume. All of this noise can crowd aggregate stats like total yards or total receptions. Luckily, there are better tools out there that can truly define how well Diggs and Thielen have played through the first quarter of the season.
Rather than using total yards, we can look at Yards Per Route Run. This measure is exactly what it says- take a receiver’s total yards, and divide by the number of snaps where they ran a route. This punishes a receiver who isn’t targeted, and getting targets in and of itself reflects success. It’s simple, objective and effective. And both Vikings wideouts are excelling. Diggs currently has 3.10 yards per route run, which leads the leauge. For perspective, only one receiver eclipsed 3 YPRR in 2016: Julio Jones with 3.12. Thielen isn’t far behind with 2.59, ranking 5th behind Diggs, Julio, Danny Amendola and Antonio Brown. Solid company.
Some receivers play in offenses with a lot of mouths to feed. You could argue that Diggs and Thielen’s production is misleading because they only have to compete with Laquon Treadwell and Kyle Rudolph, neither of whom demand a large market share. To examine this, we can look at passer rating when targeted. Another simple metric, simply looking at the QB’s passer rating when targeting a WR can give us a great idea of success that also accounts for distance, touchdowns and wins at the catch point. Diggs leads the league with a gaudy 149.9 passer rating when targeted (Sammy Watkins has a perfect 158.3, but only half as many targets and therefore isn’t qualified yet). Adam Thielen ranks 8th with a 114.4.
Strength of competition is an important caveat to all of this. Corners like P.J. Williams, a broken Vernon Hargreaves and struggling Quandre Diggs may give up bigger games than corners like Marcus Peters or Xavier Rhodes. We can look at the same stat, passer rating when targeted, but from the QB’s perspective to look at this. How did the opposing corners do in their other, non-Vikings games?
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It varies – the Steelers had better games against Diggs and Thielen than the rest of their season has been, but the Saints appear to be better than they were on Monday Night against Minnesota. It’s fair to say that the level of competition has benefitted Diggs and Thielen some, but then again, Diggs just put up a 5-for-98 performance against Darius Slay, who has been balling.
It’s worth noting that through three games, Case Keenum hasn’t done much to help the receivers produce the way they have. Per PFF’s charting, his throws were accurate just 67.7% of the time in week 2, 81.8% of the time in week 3, and 62.1% of the time this past Sunday. That’s fairly poor and inconsistent, and certainly pales in comparison to the signal callers that Antonio Brown or Brandin Cooks get to work with.
In terms of wide receiver duos, there is only a little competition for Diggs and Thielen. Julio Jones is obviously elite, and while Mohammed Sanu is a great compliment, he’s in a completely different tier than either Vikings receiver. The same applies to Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, the latter of whom has been effective but inconsistent. Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan have been remarkably efficient when targeted, but they’re enjoying Tom Brady passes and sharing a passing market with Gronkowski, Amendola and pass-catching running backs for uninspiring yards per route run totals. Diggs and Thielen boast the perfect combination of efficiency, production and mitigating circumstances that should be hurting their performance more. It’s not one superstar and a compliment, it’s two top-ten players.
There’s a strong statistical case that Stefon Diggs, at the current moment, is the best wide receiver in football. While it’s hard to make subjective arguments that any GM would trade Julio Jones, Antonio Brown or A.J. Green for Diggs (mostly based on what they’d already accomplished), none of them are acheiving what Diggs is achieving given the circumstances. You’d be hard pressed to prove that there are five better WRs in the league. While there’s a lot of season left, and this is certainly subject to change over time, Diggs and Thielen are alone atop the league as a WR duo.
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