Because that is what the Minnesota Vikings effectively did last April.
Stefon Diggs led the NFL in times-targeted, receptions, and receiving yards out in Buffalo during 2020. The only singular metric that Diggs could be considered “average” in this season was his yards per catch. He finished the season with a 12.1 mark for this parameter (64th-best in the NFL), which certainly is not poor. It is virtually the same yards per catch as Vikings tight end Irv Smith Jr. notched this season. With the Vikings in 2019, Diggs tabulated a 17.9 yards-per-reception, good enough for fourth-best leaguewide.
The Bills utilized Diggs differently than the Vikings did one year ago. Kirk Cousins launched the football to Diggs ad nauseam en route to that 17.9 average. Overall, Diggs was targeted by Kirk Cousins 94 times in 2019 – 72 fewer targets that Diggs received in Buffalo in 2020. Think of it this way: Josh Allen in Buffalo throws the ball to Diggs 4.5 more times per game than did Cousins with the Vikings in 2019.
It works. Diggs is getting his targets like a workhorse. He essentially became a Michael Thomas of wide receiver-type in Buffalo, blossoming into the skill-player focal point of the Bills offensive gameplan. Buffalo finished 2020 with a 13-3 record, a revitalized long-term optimism mostly absent for the last 25 years, and a home playoff game versus the Indianapolis Colts this weekend.
What did the Vikings get? From a production standpoint, Minnesota received DeAndre Hopkins-like production from Justin Jefferson.
In 2020, DeAndre Hopkins tallied 1,407 receiving yards and six touchdowns on 160 targets from [mostly] Kyler Murray.
In 2020, Justin Jefferson tallied 1,400 receiving yards and seventouchdowns on 125 targets from Kirk Cousins.
Jefferson was in his rookie campaign; Hopkins was in his eighth season. Based on sheer production, a first-year Jefferson was just as productive as a 28-year-old Hopkins. It should also be noted that Hopkins is considered a Top 3 NFL wide receiver in all circles. Some days, he is even considered the best of the best.
Now the Vikings have a rookie that matched Hopkins’ numbers– during Jefferson’s first year. It does not really get more exciting than that for the Vikings front office. While it is true Jefferson could encounter a sophomore setback or injury, that is probably unlikely.
In terms of an analogy, the layout is straightforward. Both players participated in 16 games (although Jefferson was ignored during the Vikings first two games). The numbers are irrefutable. Jefferson was Hopkins in 2020, a feat that was unforeseen by most and massively impressive.
35 Less Targets
Indeed, Jefferson was taught to crawl before he would walk in Gary Kubiak’s scheme. Minnesota used him sparingly in the season’s first two contests versus Green Bay and Indianapolis. Zimmer did the same thing to Diggs in 2015. It must be a Parcellsian initiation or something in that arena. Once he could walk within the Vikings offense – in about Week 3 or so – he began a full sprint. His high-octane performance has grabbed him Offensive Rookie of the Year attention. If voters of the award are not totally enamored with the quarterback-first tendency of NFL analysis, Jefferson will either win the accolade or split it with the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert.
This OROY race could have been a no-brainer. The aforementioned Hopkins attracted about 30% more targets than did Jefferson, which is fair as Hopkins is an established year-eight commodity.
But here is Jefferson’s statline by pace had he been allotted Hopkins’ 2020 targets:
113 Receptions. 1,792 Receiving Yards. 9 Touchdowns. That has Randy Moss feel to it.
Jefferson for Diggs and Then Some
A friendly re-reminder that the Diggs trade is not over. Here is the score so far: The Bills have the NFL’s leader in receiving yards – period. The Vikings have the NFL’s all-time leader in rookie receiving yards – period. Would you like a red Lamborghini or a purple Lamborghini?
The trade “kicker” should play out in the 2021 NFL Draft. The whole picture includes Justin Jefferson, Kenny Willekes (a 7th Round defensive lineman on the Vikings injured reserve list), a 2021 4th Round pick, another 2021 4th Round Pick, and a 2021 5th Round pick to the Vikings. All non-Vikings teams received Stefon Diggs, Trevis Gibson (Bears), James Broche, (Ravens) Geno Stone (Ravens), and a 7th Round player from the 2020 draft named Dane Jackson (CB) to the Bills.
The 2021 NFL Draft (barring a Rick Spielman trade) will flush out three more players to the Vikings and punctuate the Diggs trade. In the meantime, the Vikings experienced DeAndre Hopkins caliber production from Justin Jefferson in Diggs’ absence. The pieces to be named later are gravy.