When Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs soared to make a 36-yard touchdown reception in Week 7, you probably saw a spectacular play.
You probably watched it many times that week as the catch was fed through the viral Internet machine, and saw Diggs using his raw athletic skill to run down a slightly overthrown deep ball.
Maybe you even saw the fingertip catch while in full flight and thought Diggs could be the sort of transcendent receiver who can turn potential incompletions into long gains or, in this case, touchdowns.
Diggs has watched the play repeatedly too, and he also sees a mistake. But it didn’t come in the form of an overthrow by his quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
It came from him.
“A lot of people are calling that an overthrow, but it wasn’t, and I blame that on myself,” Diggs recently told Bleacher Report during a phone conversation.
At first upon hearing those words, it’s easy to assume a 21-year-old rookie who’s appeared in only four games is trying to be modest. Pumping the brakes a little on his own chugging hype train would be understandable, because after he was selected in the fifth round, Diggs has needed just three starts to pile up 25 receptions for 419 yards.
But no, Diggs doesn't concern himself with distractions like hype. He’s focused on getting better, and he sees a critical flaw when watching that catch.
“I had a double move, and I didn’t burst out of my cut,” he said. “I turned my head and looked right away, and typically in practice when we run it, I burst and try to pick up speed before looking for the ball. But because I looked so fast, I had to pick up speed and catch up to the ball.”
Remember, this is a touchdown we’re talking about here, and one that gave his team a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. Diggs, however, has an eye for intricate details, one that’s developed naturally over time.
It takes a precise finger with the pause button to see the fleeting glance he’s talking about. But it’s there, right after Diggs makes his second of two cuts on the route and plants against Detroit Lions cornerback Rashean Mathis.
“As soon as I put my foot in the ground and I passed the defensive back, I should have ran three or four steps before looking for the ball,” he added.
“That’s one of the little things I’ve learned, because it’ll be easier. Naturally when you turn your head for a ball, your body slows down. On tape you can see my body speeds up, but that split second that I did slow down could have cost me heavily, and it could have been a wasted play.”
You watched that and saw a tremendous catch; your eyes aren't lying. But Diggs sees a sequence that isn't quite technically sound, and he picks apart the finest detail.
His intense mental focus and studying habits aren't new, or particularly surprising to those who have coached the 6’0”, 191-pound receiver throughout his rise. That list includes a Maryland high school football legend and a two-time Pro Bowler.
A deep understanding, and a deep passion
Bob Milloy is a high school football lifer, and he has guided teams to a record eight Maryland state championships.
He’s coached a lot of great football to earn 397 career wins, and he's led a lot of great football players. He still wishes one of those players could stay in high school forever.
That seems like the only possible reaction after what we’ve seen from Diggs at the professional level. His 3.20 yards per route run leads all receivers who have been on the other end for at least 25 percent of their team’s targets, according to Pro Football Focus. And as a Vikings receiver, you’re probably doing something right if your name is alongside Randy Moss in any sentence.
You want Diggs on your team, and you don’t want him to leave.
“He just knows where the ball is all the time, and knows where he is on the field,” Milloy told Bleacher Report. “God, I wish I had him back.
“He was the best youth football player I had ever seen.”
That’s high praise from someone who has been in the high school football wilderness for 45 years, 14 of which have been spent with the Our Lady of Good Counsel Falcons in Olney, Maryland, where he oversaw Diggs’ early development.
The high football intellect of his student stood out even then, when Diggs was in the ninth grade.
“All you had to do is just tell him ‘this is what we’re trying to do’ and show it to him one time, and he could do it,” said Milloy, who also deployed Diggs as a cornerback. “He had the most presence on the field of anyone I’ve ever seen.”
“He just had a sense about him. He could be a great coach one day, because he’s very, very football smart.”
Watching Diggs now prompts Milloy to drift into his memories of a multidimensional young athlete who left defenders sprawled, grasping only handfuls of air. He recalled a goal-line play drawn up for Diggs, and only Diggs.
It required his quickness and nimble feet.
“We had a special goal-line play for him. Usually you have a slant or a whip. But with him we had what we called a ‘shake.’ He would slant, whip, and then slant back in, and they never stopped it. We just called it ‘31 shake’ and he would go in, then out, and back in again. And he was always open.”
Diggs has plenty of speed and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds, though that isn’t the time of a straight-line burner. But when that speed is combined with the lateral agility and abrupt cutting displayed during his pinpoint route running, you get this:
That’s Kansas City Chiefs cornerback and first-round pick Marcus Peters, who was turned around and roasted repeatedly by Diggs in Week 6. Facing the opposite direction is less-than-ideal coverage, but Diggs has that effect on those who try to match his quickness.
Peters was playing tight in press coverage, and Diggs cut toward the middle immediately after the snap, selling a vertical route. Then suddenly his brakes squealed, as Diggs went from having the throttle pinned to pivoting toward the sideline. The result was a 14-yard reception, one of Diggs’ seven catches during an afternoon when he finished with 129 yards.
Matching his top-end speed is already a tough task. But doing that while also keeping up with Diggs’ lateral movement will make your head spin.
Or, as Peters’ teammate and fellow cornerback Sean Smith found out, it’ll make your whole body spin before crashing in a heap. That’s where Smith found himself earlier in the same game, when Diggs sold another inside vertical route then suddenly cut outside.
First Smith was burned when all his momentum carried him away from Diggs, who was now accelerating to reach the space he had created.
Then the play went from desperate for Smith to an aborted mission.
Often rookie wide receivers who are gifted athletically struggle with route running early in their careers. For some, it’s a hurdle they never quite clear, like Diggs’ teammate Cordarrelle Patterson, who’s a threatening kick returner but hasn’t found a consistent role offensively due to a lack of fundamental skills as a receiver.
Diggs leans on route running as his core strength. His immediate success in that regard isn't surprising after he spent time working with Keenan McCardell, who took over as Diggs’ Maryland Terrapins position coach in 2014.
“Footwork is the key to route running,” said McCardell. “You can have the speed and everything else, but if you don’t have the footwork to go with those things, you won’t be a good route-runner.”
McCardell would know, as he posted five 1,100-plus-yard receiving seasons throughout a 16-year NFL career. He excelled at the craft of route running, and he could always shed coverage.
That was where he concentrated his work with Diggs, going about the business of building him up to become a well-rounded receiver.
“He had the talent to play at the next level,” McCardell said. “It was just a matter of being able to be a polished receiver, and understand how to get in and out of cuts, and read defenses.”
“Diggs was probably the best runner in the draft with the ball in his hands. But people won’t see that until you show them you can run routes.”
Is that why he fell in the draft then? Or was it injuries? His lack of size? Let’s go with a little bit of everything.
The Vikings have a mid-round steal
Diggs broke his leg in 2013 and suffered a lacerated kidney in 2014.
“I always assumed the worst because of the injuries, and other things I’ve been through on the football field,” Diggs said when asked about his expectations heading into the draft. “I understood it’s a business as far as when you’re drafting someone, and you want a guy you can trust. But there were no questions on my ability or character.”
None of that matters now, as a receiver who waited all the way until 146th overall is averaging 16.8 yards per reception. His slipperiness in the open field has led to six missed tackles created already, per PFF, several of which came on Diggs’ 40-yard game-tying touchdown Sunday against the Chicago Bears.
But it mattered during his predraft evaluation. Diggs doesn’t fit the modern NFL mold of a bulked-up powerhouse receiver who’s still fast, and several significant dings on his medical record could have been troubling to potentially interested teams.
“Diggs being a mid-round guy was probably more about injuries than anything else,” said Bleacher Report draft analyst Matt Miller. “If he hadn’t been a 5-star recruit and promoted as the guy who’s going to save Maryland football, maybe we would have a different perspective on his college career, and we say ‘this is a really talented guy who just got hurt a lot.’”
Diggs didn’t exactly light up Maryland, either, mostly due to those injuries. Over three seasons, he finished with 150 receptions for 2,227 yards and 14 touchdowns. But the NFL version of Diggs looks much different.
So different that over a 16-game season, he would be on pace for 1,676 receiving yards.
“The Diggs that we’re seeing now is not the guy I saw at Maryland,” said Miller. “He’s a better route-runner, and the footwork is much, much sharper.”
That’s a product of hard work and a thirst to learn. For Diggs, football is a job, a hobby and a family gathering. It’s a meeting place with his younger brother, and it was a sanctuary when he lost his father at 14 years old after Arron Diggs died of congestive heart failure.
“My father started me in football,” Diggs said, reflecting on the first routes he ran around the living room as a four-year-old. “So what better way is there to honor him than to wear his last name on my back and make him proud?”
He's tireless, and he never craves a mental escape. He just wants more football.
“My time off is usually spent working out and getting better at football. When I come home and spend time with my little brother, we’re out on the football field. We’re working out or playing Madden. We’re spending time with each other, but our quality time is football.”
He’s planning a life in football, and he already has aspirations to transition into coaching once his playing days end. He always needs new football knowledge to gnaw on.
“I’m a football fanatic. I love the game of football, I love learning new things and I love being taught things. So I try to learn as much as I can, and even at a young age I was really focused on how to be better, and trying to learn all the techniques.”
So far, that drive has produced a receiver who’s averaging 104.8 yards per game. The scariest thought for anyone who’s trying to keep up with Diggs and avoid face-planting? He’s only four games into his learning and growing at the highest level of football.