EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The back story of how Stefon Diggs became an NFL star is one of those inspirational tales that come along every now and then — a player who seemingly fell through the cracks and emerged when given an opportunity. Several other Minnesota Vikings players on offense have similar rags-to-riches stories, as Diggs is part of a group of draft afterthoughts. They are a collection of players that, at one time, nobody wanted.
The lack of star power hasn’t caused a dip in production. Most of Minnesota’s success on offense this season has come from players such as the former fifth-rounder Diggs, an elite wide receiver who was on the receiving end of one of the greatest plays in NFL postseason history last Sunday. There’s also Adam Thielen, an undrafted practice-squad wideout who made his first Pro Bowl, and three players picked later in their respective drafts in running back Latavius Murray (sixth round), wide receiver Jarius Wright (fourth round) and running back Jerick McKinnon (third round).
The Vikings accumulated 3,430 yards of offense from players drafted in the fifth round or later (including undrafted players) this season, which is the most in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
And that’s not including the production from quarterback Case Keenum, this year’s most talked-about redemption story. Like Thielen, Keenum started his NFL career as an undrafted practice-squad player and is now the starting quarterback for a team in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
Diggs is the Vikings’ second-leading receiver in yards (849) and is tied for the team lead in touchdowns with eight. He might have the No. 2 feel-good story behind the other half of Minnesota’s wideout duo, but with his steady production in the last three seasons, capped by a scintillating 61-yard, walk-off touchdown against the Saints, Diggs doesn’t have to take a back seat to any receiver this weekend.
The former blue-chip recruit was the No. 3 wide receiver in the country on national signing day in 2012, according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, and the No. 13 player overall. A breakout freshman year at Maryland put him on the cusp of big things, but season-ending injuries two years in a row (a broken leg, followed by a lacerated kidney) led him to forego his senior season to pursue his NFL dreams.
“High school was a real, real long time ago,” Diggs said as a smile crept across his face.
“That’s a whole different process. But as far as like going into the combine and stuff like that, I had 100 percent confidence in myself, but I had a lot of support along the way. I’ll never take all the credit, especially because I got put in the position by some good people.”
There were concerns about whether his size (6-foot, 175 pounds) would cause him to be neutralized by physical cornerbacks. It’s almost laughable now, but he was criticized for his route-running ability and willingness to block in college. In a loaded draft class of receivers, Diggs was viewed as another middle-of-the-pack talent with temperate expectations.
Drafted 146th overall, Diggs was taken after 19 other receivers in the 2015 draft, four of whom did not play in 2017: Dorial Green-Beckham (second round), Devin Smith (second round), DeAndre Smelter (fifth round) and Rashad Greene (fifth round).
The Vikings saw something so many others wish they wouldn’t have passed on. Diggs reminded them of another undersized, overlooked and snubbed talent. What former sixth-round pick Antonio Brown became foreshadowed what Minnesota expected from Diggs.
Three years later, Diggs and Brown are just two of four players since 2015 with at least 200 catches, 8 yards per target and a 67-percent catch rate. Diggs has 200 catches for 2,472 yards and 15 touchdowns in his three NFL seasons. His receiving yards rank 18th in the NFL among wide receivers in that span, which ranks second in his draft class behind Amari Cooper.
Diggs had had more targets and receiving yards a year ago, but he’s actually more productive now than he was then.
While the majority of Keenum’s targets (132) have gone Thielen’s way, it’s Diggs who has generated more production. Including the playoffs, Keenum has thrown more touchdowns to Diggs than Thielen (seven to four), has a higher completion percentage to No. 14 (67 to 64) and averages more yards per attempt (9.5 to 8.9). Keenum hasn’t always been able to take advantage of Diggs’ downfield abilities (Keenum was picked off in the third quarter of the Saints game on his first attempt to Diggs 20-plus yards downfield), but made the most of it on the game-winning score.
Nearly every time the Vikings practice “Buffalo Right, 7 Heaven” in practice, it’s Diggs who sets up to run the deep corner route. The receiver had caught just under half of his targets on passes thrown 20 yards or more downfield in his career ahead of Sunday’s game, and Keenum knew his best bet at winning the game would be to take a chance on the player so many didn’t.
That play will loop on repeat every time Diggs’ name is mentioned for the rest of his career, perhaps bringing up regret among the 31 teams that passed over one of the league’s most talented receivers.
“It has been awesome to watch him work,” Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “All offseason, during the season perfecting his craft and since the day he was here his first three games (in 2015) he wasn’t even dressed (healthy scratch). He continually has gotten better over the past three years. It is awesome to see guys like that work so hard have an opportunity in such a big moment and for them to make the most of it.”