The Bills made a huge investment in Josh Allen in 2018, trading three draft picks to move up five spots and select the raw quarterback out of Wyoming. Buffalo would never find out if it had been a responsible trade without giving Allen the best possible chance to succeed.
That’s where Stefon Diggs came in. After two years, Allen had shown some upside as a mobile, big-armed passer, but he was still too inaccurate and mistake-prone. It’s often a chicken-or-the-egg question with quarterbacks: Does a passer force throws because he’s reckless or because none of his receivers are open? Diggs would be the best way to answer that question.
Five years in Minnesota had proven Diggs to be one of the league’s premier route runners with speed and hands to match. Allen hadn’t thrown to a wideout as talented as Diggs in his life. Could the key to unlocking Allen simply be to surround him with more weapons?
Coupled with huge individual offseason improvements by Allen, Diggs has been the final piece to the puzzle, and he led the NFL in both receptions and receiving yards in 2020. It’s hard to think of a truly great quarterback without naming at least one world-class pass catcher alongside him. For Allen, that role is filled by Diggs, and with Buffalo chasing a Super Bowl berth, Diggs wound up being exactly what Allen needed.
Stefon Diggs trade details
- Bills receive: Stefon Diggs; Vikings 2020 seventh-round pick
- Vikings receive: Bills 2020 first-round pick (No. 22); Bills 2020 fifth-round pick; Bills 2020 sixth-round pick; Bills 2021 fourth-round pick
Diggs was the only non-pick traded in this deal. Of the picks that have already been made from this deal: Buffalo drafted cornerback Dane Jackson in the seventh round with the Vikings pick; Minnesota drafted receiver Justin Jefferson at No. 22 overall; Minnesota traded the fifth- and sixth-round picks to acquire additional selections in the 2021 NFL Draft.
As a rookie for the Bills, Jackson played in five regular season games and picked off one pass. For all intents and purposes, this can be viewed as a swap of Diggs for Jefferson, the rookie out of LSU who set a number of rookie receiver records in Minnesota.
How Stefon Diggs gave Josh Allen exactly what he needed
In 2018, Allen’s rookie season, Buffalo was not a hotbed of wide receivers. The top three statistical receivers on the Bills’ roster that year were Zay Jones, Robert Foster and Kelvin Benjamin. It’s OK to shudder, Bills Mafia — that nightmare is over.
General manager Brandon Beane would have to find Allen better targets, but it wasn’t going to be possible to overhaul the entire receiver setup overnight. The Bills had to start with small steps before their final blockbuster. That meant acquiring John Brown and Cole Beasley, giving Allen a legitimate deep threat along with a seemingly-always-open slot man. It made a big difference as the Bills went 10-6 and made the postseason before blowing a big lead against the Texans.
Brown and Beasley both had strong seasons, but they’d enter the 2020 season on the wrong side of 30. They were great complementary receivers but not as ideal as a No. 1 wideout. No, Buffalo needed a true top dog at the wide receiver position, and Diggs’ disgruntlement in Minnesota made him available. Beane said in the offseason that he wasn’t sure whether a top-end rookie receiver could step in from a COVID-altered offseason and contribute right away.
“Sometimes the best laid plans don’t always translate,” Beane told the Bills’ official website, “but we’re confident and that’s why we swung with a first-round pick. You know I love draft picks and that was not easy for me to part with a first-round pick, but at the same time I view (Stefon) as our first-round pick and I thought it was good for the value of getting a guy like Stefon.”
Diggs has been the perfect partner for Allen’s greatly improved precision. It doesn’t matter whether Diggs is running in-breaking or out-breaking routes, short of the sticks or well down the field. Allen added pinpoint accuracy to his game, and with Diggs so frequently open, they can connect consistently.
Allen’s arm can throw lesser receivers open. He can fit the ball into windows that don’t seem to be there, or throw it further beyond a secondary than they could reasonably expect. But when games are on the line, it’s about the best receiver on the field winning his individual matchup and trusting that his quarterback can deliver the ball on time and on target. Diggs gets open enough, and Allen finds him.
The presence of Diggs makes Brown and Beasley that much more dangerous, too, along with the rookie Gabriel Davis from UCF. Defenses are forced to focus on Diggs, leaving that talented trio with winnable matchups. And since Diggs can beat his defender even with the focus on him, that’s a bevy of four-wide sets that opposing teams simply can’t handle.
One of the most commonly desired traits in a basketball point guard is the ability to make all his teammates better. It’s not something that’s often discussed with wide receivers, but in Diggs’ case, that’s exactly what happened. Buffalo’s trade for Diggs made Allen better. It made Brown, and Beasley, and Davis all better. It made the Bills better as a whole, not just because of Diggs’ individual skills but because of what that skillset means for everyone around him.
In April, Beane said that “time will tell if this move for Stefon was right.” It’s fair to change the tenses on that sentence now: Time has told that the move for Stefon Diggs was right.