Vikings WR Stefon Diggs looks like draft-day steal

AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt

Minnesota Vikings rookie receiver Stefon Diggs has a knack for making plays in space.

"Well, that's one way to put it, but I would put it a different way: He's absolutely phenomenal in space," said Maryland interim football coach Mike Locksley, the Terrapins' offensive coordinator while Diggs was in school. "That's the best [adjective] to use."

The Vikings and their fans won't argue, especially after Diggs' eye-popping seven-catch, 129-yard performance in a 16-10 Week 6 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. Playing in only his second NFL game, Diggs emerged as quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's go-to receiver. And on third-and-15 late in the fourth quarter, Diggs broke free downfield for a crucial 30-yard gain. Blair Walsh's 45-yard field goal with under five minutes to go provided all the cushion Minnesota needed to hold off Kansas City.

The strong encore followed Diggs' solid debut (six receptions, 87 yards) in Week 4 against Denver. That's 13 receptions for 216 yards -- as well as a fast-developing bond with Bridgewater -- in two games. (Minnesota had a bye in Week 5.) Not bad for a fifth-round pick who slipped in the draft and moved up the Vikings' depth chart only recently because wideout Charles Johnson was sidelined. Now Diggs could become a first-team fixture.

Although Johnson returned to practice this week, the Vikings have stuck with Diggs as their No. 2 receiver behind veteran Mike Wallace, who compares Diggs favorably to his former Pittsburgh Steelers teammate: superstar Antonio Brown. Diggs' playmaking ability could be just what the Vikings need to jump-start their passing game, which ranks last in the league in net yards. Last week, Diggs provided exactly what the Vikings needed.

The fact that Bridgewater was comfortable turning to Diggs down the stretch showed how much the 21-year-old has impressed the past few weeks. "He knows I'm working hard out there, doing everything I can for him," Diggs said in a phone interview. "Especially when he's scrambling around, I'm trying to find a spot to get open for him."

It's fair to say that Diggs is the least heralded member of the Vikings' receiving corps.

A high-priced veteran, Wallace was acquired from the Miami Dolphins in the offseason to be the get-in-line-behind-him No. 1 receiver. Johnson entered the season as the clear second option. Talented tight end Kyle Rudolph, who signed a lucrative extension in the offseason, figures to be targeted often, and the Vikings are still waiting for former first round pick Cordarrelle Patterson to make an impact as a wide receiver.

Then there's Diggs, who, despite receiving good reviews during training camp and the preseason, was inactive for Minnesota's first three games.

"I was [eager] to get out there, but I was also willing to wait for my time," Diggs said. "But when my time came, I was definitely going to take advantage of my opportunity, whether my time came in Week 10, Week 6 or whenever. I just felt that I had to be prepared."

Maryland's Locksley knew Diggs would keep his head in the game.

Locksley and his former pupil have remained close. They usually speak on the phone or text at least once or twice a week. "He was itching at the bit early on when he was inactive in the first few games," Locksley said. "I just told him to be patient. But I'm not surprised -- at all -- at the impact and the production that he has had. He knows how to get open -- and he knows how to catch the ball."

Perhaps what's most impressive from Diggs' two NFL games is the number of ways in which he's succeeded. He has caught all four passes thrown his way 20-plus yards downfield, while also showing the ability to turn a wide receiver screen into a big gain.

"The big thing is that his short-area quickness is just ridiculous," Locksley said. "And for a receiver, when you get to the top of your route, being able to stick your foot in the ground and accelerate from Point A to Point B, from zero to 10, it makes a big difference. ... Stef was as good as any [college] receiver I've seen at it. And when the ball is in the air, man, he's great at attacking it."

Diggs is pretty good at route running, too. At Maryland, he worked under wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell, who spent 17 years in the NFL and had almost 900 receptions and more than 11,000 yards receiving.

"He took a lot from training under Keenan, who was a great receiver in the league for a long time," Locksley said. "He has learned how to mask his routes. He refined a lot of that stuff.

"And then, he adds the ability to attack the ball. He has really big hands, really strong hands, and if the ball is in his catch radius, he usually comes down with it."

Just as he did at Maryland, Diggs quickly earned the respect of his NFL teammates. Brian Stewart, Maryland's defensive coordinator when Diggs was on the team, said it's easy to appreciate someone who "brings urgency and intensity." Terrapins defensive players "absolutely knew that, even as a true freshman, you better bring a lunch pail that day because he's going to work to get back to the ball. ... He's a very good competitor. That shows right off the bat."

Clearly, Diggs has ability, so it seems natural to ask: How did he drop to the fifth round?

"In the NFL, people have their little box that they put guys in for whatever reason," said Stewart, the Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator in 2007 and '08. "When you get in that box, it's hard to get out."

According to an NFC East player-personnel official, here's the box checked most next to Diggs' name before the 2015 draft: injuries. Because he struggled to stay on the field in college (he played in 28 of Maryland's 38 games from 2012-14) -- and because he measured just 6 feet, 195 pounds at the combine -- teams had concerns about his durability, the official said. Better for the Vikings.

"It matters to him," Stewart said. "He's got talent, and he'll work. The Vikings got a good one."

After their past two games, it certainly seems so. And as Diggs has reminded us: Regardless of where you start, it only matters where you finish.