EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Sam Bradford immediately immersed himself in video study of his new team after the Minnesota Vikings made the emergency trade to acquire him the week before the regular season began.
The starring role of this film, for Bradford, was adeptly played by Stefon Diggs.
“He just kind of popped,” Bradford said. “You just kind of notice him. He’s always getting separation. He seems to always be finding a way to get open.”
The live proof quickly followed.
In Bradford’s debut, a 17-14 victory over rival Green Bay last Sunday, Diggs had nine receptions for 182 yards . Diggs received the NFC offensive player of the week award for the performance. That included a slick third-quarter touchdown catch in which he ran to the inside of Packers cornerback Damarious Randall, veered outside as if he were going to run a corner route, then curled behind Randall to run back inside to complete the post pattern.
“He just throws a good ball,” Diggs said. “I just try to make the plays I can for him.”
Through two games, Diggs leads the NFL with 285 yards receiving. Diggs has been targeted on 20 of Minnesota’s 64 passes , and with 16 receptions he has the fourth-best catch percentage in the league among wide receivers who’ve been thrown to more than 12 times. Diggs became the third player in Vikings history with two 100-yard games to start a season, the first since Cris Carter in 1997.
“I definitely know he’s got all the tools,” said Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who often covers Diggs in practice. “Great hands. Great route runner. I said when he first got here that he reminded me a little of Antonio Brown. When he was a rookie I said that. This guy, man, he’s just been phenomenal for this team.”
That’s particularly true considering that Diggs became the first rookie in franchise history to lead the team in receptions (52) last year, with Teddy Bridgewater as the quarterback. Bradford arrived after Bridgewater went down with a massive injury to his left knee on Aug. 30, but Shaun Hill started the opener at Tennessee. Diggs thrived with him throwing the passes, too.
“If a puppy bites when he’s young, when he gets to be big he’s going to really bite you,” wide receivers coach George Stewart said. “He had some bite in him as a young puppy. You saw what he did when he came in last year and started to play. It wasn’t a mistake he played well. He prepared himself to be a good player in our league, and he’s continuing to do that.”
The swift rise for Diggs is remarkable considering he fell to the fifth round of the 2015 draft coming out of college one year early. He’s on the smaller side at his position at 6-foot and 190 pounds, for one. The unstable quarterback situation at Maryland during his career there didn’t help productivity, even though his 1,896 all-purpose yards as a freshman in 2012 was the second-highest total in program history.
Then there was the broken leg and subsequent related leg muscle injuries that kept him out for almost half of his sophomore season. A lacerated kidney cost him three games as a junior.
He’s a relentless worker, though, with footwork as crisp and instinct as sharp as any of his peers around the league. His unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Packers notwithstanding — a product in coach Mike Zimmer’s view of his desire to protect a teammate — Diggs possesses a polish on the field and carries himself off of it in a way that transcends his age.
Diggs was only 14 when his father died. He’s become a father-like figure to his younger brothers, especially Trevon Diggs, a freshman wide receiver at Alabama.
“He’s looking at me as far as like a role model. I want to be the first example,” Diggs said. “I want him to have to look nowhere else, as far as like somebody that works hard or does what they’re supposed to do.”
The Vikings (2-0) will be relying on Diggs more than ever now, with Bridgewater, running back Adrian Peterson and left tackle Matt Kalil all likely out for the rest of the season with injuries.
“I’ve just got to do what I’ve got to do, and at the end of the day if that happens,” Diggs said with a sly smile, “I’ll be all right.”
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