I am going to be honest: I am a little shocked at the order of extensions from the Vikings this offseason.
With Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Trae Waynes, Danielle Hunter and Stefon Diggs all up for new contracts in 2019, I had a certain arrangement of priorities in mind. Kendricks, Barr and Waynes were all somewhat lower on that totem pole, with Waynes being the highest of the three. Hunter was second-highest, given his combination of youth and talent. In my mind, Diggs was easily the most important extension to lock in this offseason.
Yet, here we are. Kendricks was the first to land a deal. Waynes had his option picked up, meaning he will still be on board in 2019. And Hunter signed a somewhat low-ball offer to stay opposite Everson Griffen for five more years. Barr and Diggs remain the only untied ends. So the debate rages: who is more essential to the Vikings’ future?
To me the answer is simple. It is the man who personifies the greatest moment of the 2017 season. The man whose ceiling we have only caught a glimpse of. It is the man who will most help the offense invoke the spirit of the explosive Vikings offenses of the Dennis Green era. The money has to go to keeping Stefon Diggs for the long run.
At this point in time, there are plenty of questions with regard to the Vikings’ offense. Kirk Cousins has years of solid play but without the wins to show for it. Dalvin Cook is coming off ACL surgery. The offensive line is an adequate but unspectacular unit. Even depth among the receivers is a question. The one thing that is secure for 2018? The top two pass catchers, Diggs and Adam Thielen.
A pair of top-flight receivers is not something new to Vikings fans. The Minnesota offense of the late-90s, early 00s made multiple deep runs in the postseason due in large part to the combination of Randy Moss and Cris Carter. They were the calling card of an elite passing game that spanned multiple quarterbacks. Those two were unable to clear the final hurdle of immortality. This iteration of the Vikings has the opportunity to do what that group did not. But they need to keep their greatest weapon intact for the long run.
Together, Thielen and Diggs have versatility. They have interplay that works on opposite sides of the field or lined up next to each other. They can build off each other short or long, up the middle or along the sidelines, in the red zone or between the 20s. Both are elite talents that complement each other perfectly.
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But Diggs’ value goes beyond his pairing with Thielen. His individual brilliance has been on display for three years now. Most notably, Diggs is one of the best receivers in tight space in all of football. Despite his small stature, he scored the best contested ball catch percentage in 2017, according to Pro Football Focus. He was first among receivers with at least ten targets in red zone catch percentage and fourth in red zone yards. Jarvis Landry was the only receiver with more red zone touchdowns than Diggs last season. In a way, Diggs is the NFC’s version of Antonio Brown: a smaller receiver who makes big things happen by nature of exceptional route running and elite hands.
Here is where the naysayers will point to Diggs’ one significant flaw through his first three seasons: his availability. Of 48 possible games, Diggs has only played in 40. And that does not take into considerations games he saw limited time due to injury, such as week five in Chicago last season. His injury history is the only thing that prevented Diggs from reaching 1,000 yards in a season thus far. It is a reasonable concern, especially considering how dependent the Viking offense has been on their receivers.
But Diggs still has played at least 13 games every season of his career. He accounted for 28 percent of targets last year, despite missing the better part of three games. So while it may concern fans to offer $16 million or more to an injury-prone receiver, Diggs history has never included long-term periods of missing games. His injuries have always been minor, and Diggs consistently returns to form after recovery.
So the question comes down to money. Diggs is reportedly looking to make in the $14 to $16 million range, which would put him among the top-10 highest paid at his position. Diggs’ past and projections would indicate he is, indeed, worth top-10 receiver money. But there is something else to consider: Anthony Barr. It really will come down to Diggs or Barr, given that both are looking for around the same money and there is only room for one such contract.
As valuable as Barr is to the defense, Diggs is more important. Elite receivers are harder to find than elite linebackers and in today’s NFL, they impact the game significantly more. Plus, there is no piece of the Vikings more expensive than Cousins. It is paramount that Minnesota gives him all the weapons they can.
Signing Diggs will essentially put a lid on their roster for the next few seasons. But it will also lock in the last of their most important young pieces. The Vikings were able to extend Kendricks and Hunter earlier than many expected. And with Hunter’s team friendly contract, there is room to offer Diggs a little extra incentive. The time is now to secure the last piece of a long-term championship contender.