Sports

The Bills Won the Stefon Diggs Trade. Right?

People do not like ties. They want to win, and they want others to lose.

It’s a maxim that has kicked around for years, but may have been best said by the English novelist W. Somerset Maugham.

“Now that I’ve grown old, I realize that for most of us it is not enough to have achieved personal success,” Maugham said. “One’s best friend must also have failed.”

With that in mind, what happens when a trade appears to be an unequivocal success for both teams? That situation is playing out in Buffalo and Minnesota, where a blockbuster deal that sent wide receiver Stefon Diggs and a late-round pick to the Vikings for a package of draft picks has given both teams exactly what they wanted.

Diggs, who will take the field for Buffalo in one of two N.F.L. games on Monday, has been a dominant force for the 4-1 Bills. Justin Jefferson, a wide receiver taken with one of the picks acquired for Diggs, has been one of the few bright spots for the rebuilding Vikings.

For the Bills, the addition of Diggs has changed the makeup of the team. Josh Allen, who had occasionally tantalized, was looking like a legitimate candidate for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award before faltering in last week’s loss to Tennessee. John Brown and Cole Beasley appear to have found purpose as the team’s No. 2 and 3 receivers behind Diggs. And Buffalo, as it works out some issues on defense, has a top-five offense for the first time since 1992.

As for Diggs, he is playing perhaps the best football in his career. His 509 yards receiving entering Monday night gave him 101.8 per game, which trailed only Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins for the N.F.L. lead, and he was catching more than 70 percent of the balls thrown his way for just the second time in his career. He was doing that despite increased attention and fairly tight coverage, with an average separation of just 2.7 yards per reception, according to the N.F.L.’s Next Gen statistics database.

Diggs seemed eager for even more.

“I’m always chasing greatness,” he said. “I feel like we’re nowhere close to where we can be.”

ImageJust six games into his N.F.L. career, Justin Jefferson is making things look extremely easy.
Credit…Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune, via Associated Press

While Diggs has had personal success, it’s also notable how his presence has opened the field for his teammates. With opponents focusing on Diggs, Allen was able to throw fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Brown and to tight end Tyler Kroft during the team’s 4-0 start.

Diggs said he’s “just one guy,” but acknowledged the impact he has had on others, saying, “My job entails getting open or getting other guys open.”

Despite all of that, you can make a reasonable case that Minnesota has won this trade so far. Or at least that the Vikings did better than could have been expected once the team’s hand was forced.

Diggs was a malcontent in Minnesota, repeatedly talking about wanting to be traded. He turns 27 next month and he’s fairly expensive at $14.8 million for this season. Situations like that often lead to teams getting pennies on the dollar in a trade.

But the Vikings appear to have struck gold in Jefferson.

A 6-foot-1, 202-pound receiver out of Louisiana State, Jefferson is just 21 and under contract for a total of just $13.1 million for the next four seasons — less than Diggs will make just this year.

Despite that discounted rate, Jefferson is third in the N.F.L. with 537 yards receiving, a total that trails only Billy Howton of the 1952 Packers for the most through a player’s first five games. And Jefferson is picking up steam with more than 100 yards in three of his last four games, including 166 and two touchdowns in Sunday’s loss to Atlanta.

He is catching 77.8 percent of the balls thrown his way and he is a serious vertical threat, with an average of 19.2 yards per reception.

The struggling team’s faith in Jefferson has been apparent. Many took note of Kirk Cousins trusting the rookie in a key situation with an unpracticed over-the-shoulder throw in a Week 4 win. But an even bigger endorsement of Jefferson came in Sunday’s loss to Atlanta. Cousins was intercepted twice on throws to Jefferson in the first half, but he kept targeting the young star, who ended up having the best game of his career despite the team’s 40-23 loss.

Credit…Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

Diggs’s departure has not cured the Vikings of their discontent, and tempers flared on Sunday with receiver Adam Thielen appearing to berate Cousins on the sideline during a brutal first half. But Jefferson has done his part to try to keep things light, introducing his teammates to the Griddy, a dance that Thielen tried to emulate a few weeks ago.

Whether Jefferson can keep up with Diggs in the long term is an open question. Diggs is a known entity thriving as a No. 1 receiver for a team expected to make the playoffs. Jefferson is benefiting from teams not knowing him, from his team often trailing by a wide margin and from having Thielen on the other side of the field. But Jefferson, the youngest player to score a touchdown this season, made an excellent point a few weeks ago when asked about his rapid development.

“We didn’t have any preseason or anything before this,” he said. “I guess you could say this is my preseason and I’m just getting started.”

Maybe in this rare instance, a tie is OK.

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