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Evaluating the Stefon Diggs Trade

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Divisional Round - Minnesota Vikings v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The Vikings had the second-best receiver in the NFL last season, in terms of yards per route run, in Stefon Diggs. It was his best year in that regard, but he’d been top 20 more or less for the past few years before that too. They also had him under contract at $12 million/year which, in light of Amari Cooper’s $20 million/year deal signed recently with the Cowboys, looks to be a bargain contract - with four years left on it.

Diggs was a 5th round draft pick for the Vikings back in 2015. Looking back on the 2015 draft today, and seeing how all the players have turned out so far, Stefon Diggs was probably the single best pick in the entire draft- Danielle Hunter being a close second. Better than #1 overall pick Jameis Winston, or #2 Marcus Mariota, or #4 pick Amari Cooper.

All that makes the Vikings happy, but apparently not Stefon Diggs. Well before Amari Cooper’s deal, Diggs had been showing signs of discontent: and outburst on the sideline here, an off-handed comment there, and occasional cryptic tweets.

That led to the Buffalo Bills to make inquiries into Diggs’ availability for trade last year.

At that point Rick Spielman’s asking price was two first-round draft picks and change, which apparently was a non-starter for the Bills. Spielman wasn’t really interested in trading Diggs at that point, despite some early signs of discontent, unless the Bills made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

A year went by, and Diggs continued to show some signs of discontent, in his own cryptic way, and that led the Bills to once again inquire into Diggs’ availability. Apparently Diggs’ discontent was more apparent internally in the Vikings organization, and that, combined with the Vikings salary cap situation and roster needs, led Spielman to the negotiating table.

Making the Deal

Apparently his starting point was the terms of the Percy Harvin trade in which the Seahawks gave the Vikings a first-, third- and seventh-round pick - the third-round pick being in the subsequent year’s draft. Both players were top receivers (Harvin was 6th in yards per route run in 2012, a jet sweep rushing threat, and a dynamic kick returner averaging 36 yards a return). Harvin was on the last year of his rookie deal, however, whereas Diggs had four years left on his veteran contract, which was well below his market value. Both players had missed some games due to injuries - Harvin 10 games, Diggs 7.

The Bills held the #22 pick in the first round this year, whereas the Seahawks traded the #25 pick. In any case, the Bills ultimately agreed to send that #22 pick, along with their 2021 fourth-round pick, fifth-round pick #155, and sixth-round pick #201. The Vikings also kicked in seventh-round pick #229.

If you use Jimmy Johnson’s trade value chart, subtracting one round value for the next year draft picks, the Vikings got more in trade for Diggs than they got for Percy Harvin:

Diggs: 780 (#22) + 28.2 (#155) + 9.8 (#201) + 23 (2021 4th round pick) - 1 (Vikings #229) = 840

Harvin: 720 (#25) + 37 (2014 #96) + 4.6 (#214) = 761.6

The next year picks were discounted one round value, as is common for having to wait an extra year. In the case of next year’s 4th round pick given for Diggs, I used Buffalo’s current draft position as an estimate.

The result is a difference of 78.4 draft points in Jimmy Johnson’s draft chart, equivalent to the 2nd pick in the 4th round (#108) in this year’s draft.

But, the question remains - does that represent a fair deal ?

Risks and Returns

Both teams take a risk in making the trade, either giving up a top receiver or their top draft pick and a few more. Both teams are hoping to come out ahead. But let’s look at that more closely.

For the Vikings, they get a 1st, 4th, 5th and 6th round draft pick, while also giving up a 7th.

But how many draft picks is adequate to replace a top receiver in the league?

Tough question.

Most draft picks don’t work out. And fewer still turn into top veterans. On the other hand, rookie contracts are cheap. But how many draft picks does it take to replace a top veteran? It could be one, if you’re lucky. Or it could be ten or more if you’re not.

The best study of draft pick success was done by Pro Football Reference using their AV statistic, which I used in a piece I wrote a few years ago entitled Most Draft Picks are Busts.

Using this methodology, Stefon Diggs is already a “great” draft pick, something only 6.9% of draft picks were between 1995-2014. He has already achieved an AV of 44, an average of 8.8 per year. If he gets to 80 or more, he goes into the ‘legendary’ category only 1% of players make in their NFL career.

So, with those odds, it would take a helluva-lotta picks to be sure to draft another player of Diggs’ quality. More than the Vikings gave for Herschel Walker.

However, the Vikings are not losing the full career of a top veteran like Stefon Diggs - they’ve already cashed in on their 5th round draft pick big time over the past five years. They’re technically losing only the next four years of it - the remaining length of his current contract - that’s what the Bills are getting. Both the 26 year-old player and the $12 million/year salary for four years. So that changes the equation.

Trading Diggs’ remaining four-year contract, at $12 million/year, represents a bargain for the Bills. Amari Cooper just signed a $20 million/year deal, which is a close comparable for Diggs. So the Vikings are trading Diggs to the Bills at a discounted salary cap compared to what they’d get in the open market. Of course they’ll likely be hearing from Diggs’ agent about that in the not too distant future, but for the time being it’s a discount.

From the Vikings standpoint, however, they need compensation to make up for the loss of Diggs for the next four years, including the value of his contract. They could probably get a receiver like Robby Anderson for about $12 million/year in the free agent market (or could have - he signed a 2-year, $20 million deal with Carolina), to use a similar player example, but he isn’t as good as Diggs, although he’s the same age. They could also use that money to sign or extend a quality starter. Dalvin Cook, let’s say. Whatever player you consider, the Vikings free-up enough salary cap space to sign another quality starter, which helps mitigate the risk of losing Diggs. The Vikings also take a $9 million dead cap hit in trading Diggs.

So what would it take then to make up the difference in draft picks? Both sides take risks here. The Bills risk Diggs performing worse than what they might get from their draft pick compensation, and the Vikings risk their draft pick compensation not turning out as well as Diggs over the next four years.

Buyer Beware

Diggs could get injured in training camp and never be the same. He could lose a step naturally with age and become less valuable. He could have difficulty adapting to a new situation, or just not perform as well. He could simply not like playing for the Bills for some reason, or be unhappy with his contract and become an irritant or force them to pay him more, reducing the value of the contract they paid for.

In the Percy Harvin trade, the Vikings got a late 1st, 3rd and 7th round pick. Those turned out to be Xavier Rhodes, Jerick McKinnon, and Travis Bond respectively. Bond was a bust, but Rhodes was a 7-year starter for the Vikings, and a quality one most of those years, earning All-Pro status one year and a few Pro Bowl nods as well. McKinnon was a quality rotational back who became a compensatory free agent.

At the time, some thought it was a bold, smart move for Seattle. There were comments like this as well:

It’s a stunning move that will strengthen an already powerful Seahawks roster with a premier wide receiver and return threat, while simultaneously ending Harvin’s often rocky four-year tenure in Minnesota. It’s a bitter pill to swallow for Vikings fans. Harvin was the Vikings’ most exciting player, with the ability to scorch defenses as a pass-catcher and pick up devastating chunks of yardage in open space. - Marc Sessler, nfl.com

It’s easy to see what a player has done on the field, and project that same production in the future. Even more, you could imagine how much better Harvin would be with Russell Wilson at QB instead of Christian Ponder. It stands to reason.

And yet, as it turned out for the Seahawks, which in addition to the draft pick compensation also provided Harvin a new $64.25 million contract with $25.5 million guaranteed, they got all of 23 receptions from Harvin before they traded him to the Jets for a 6th round pick a year and a half later. They incurred a $7.2 million dead cap hit in doing so. In all, Harvin cost the Seahawks about $19 million in salary cap, in addition to the lost draft picks. He played in a total of 8 games for Seattle. Apparently he was a locker room cancer in Seattle, and took himself out of games when he was healthy, among other things.

This of course is a cautionary tale for teams trading for a disgruntled top receiver. The Bills should know this of course - they picked up Harvin after he was released by the Jets. They paid him nearly $8 million for the 7 games he played in for the Bills over the last two years of his career.

Antonio Brown is another high-profile recent example.

So too was Randy Moss, who the Vikings also traded to Oakland for their #7 overall pick, Napoleon Harris and a 7th rounder. That trade turned out to be a bust for both sides, as Moss was with the Raiders for only two seasons, and the Vikings missed on the first-round draft pick - taking WR Troy Williamson, who apparently developed some sort of vision problem after being drafted and could no longer see the ball properly, among other problems.

Moss turned out to be a very profitable trade acquisition for the Patriots two years later, but not so much for the Vikings, who traded a 3rd round pick for him after his successful three seasons with the Patriots. He was waived a month later.

The Cowboys trading a first-round pick to the Raiders for Amari Cooper worked out well for them, but at the time it was the Raiders who were unhappy, not Cooper.

The jury is still out on the Giants trading Odell Beckham Jr. and his $15 million/year salary cap to Cleveland for #17 (Dexter Lawrence), #95 (Oshane Ximines), and Jabill Peppers (separating Vernon for Zeitler), but even with some questionable draft picks the Giants may have the better value so far.

Overall, recent history of trades involving disgruntled top receivers halfway (or so) through their career haven’t turned out well for the acquiring team.

The Draft is a Crapshoot

For the Vikings, they face the long odds of draft picks. Only about half of first-round picks are deemed a success (AV of 5+/year). And it goes down pretty steeply after that. Overall, about 69% of draft picks are busts. For Day 3 draft picks, the success rate is roughly 10% on average. Closer to 15% for 4th rounders, and closer to 5% for 7th rounders.

They may be able to redirect Diggs’ salary cap toward signing or extending another quality starter, but to really come out ahead, they need to hit on a draft pick or two. They have a total of four picks.

Given the probabilities above, the chances of the Vikings having at least one successful pick are roughly 66%. Mathematically, the easiest way to calculate this is to multiply the odds of each pick being a bust. Thus, 50% x 85% x 90% x 90% = 34.4% chance all of them are bad picks. That being the case, that means a 65.6% chance at least one of them is a good one. If the Vikings are fortunate with the first-round pick they got from this trade, they have about a 31% chance that another one of the traded picks will turn out well.

The chance of at least one of the picks turning out as well as Diggs, using the PFR AV research? Only about 25%.

It certainly can be done, however. Back in 2015, Spielman hit the jackpot 3 times in one draft - Stefon Diggs, Eric Kendricks, and Danielle Hunter. Those picks are all now considered ‘great’ picks using the PFR AV metrics - something only 6.9% of draft picks rise to become. That they were 2nd, 3rd, and 5th round picks makes them even more uncommon.

Bottom Line

The Vikings sold the second-half of Stefon Diggs’ career, or most of it in all likelihood, shedding enough salary cap to sign or keep another good player, while also giving them about a 66% chance of getting another quality player on a bargain rookie contract for four years, including a 25% chance of landing another ‘great’ pick like Diggs himself was.

Given the Vikings extremely tight salary cap situation, that makes sense for them in the overall quest to build the best roster possible within the salary cap, both now and down the road.

For the Bills, they get a proven top performer in Stefon Diggs, with a below market value contract. But that could change. Diggs may push for more money in light of the Amari Cooper deal, and/or Diggs may not continue to perform at the same level in Buffalo, for one reason or another. On the other hand, he could get more targets as the #1 WR in Buffalo and see his production grow.

Clearly the mindset for Buffalo was to bring in a proven receiver to help give young QB Josh Allen more weapons, rather than take a chance in the draft. They have John Brown, but he’s getting older, and Cole Beasley in the slot. Both are above average. They have plenty of salary cap space, so that wasn’t an issue for them.

But there are reasons to believe it may not be the best situation for Diggs.

First, the Bills didn’t pass much more than the Vikings did last year. Bills’ offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has been an OC for six years, with four different teams. In those six seasons, the highest his offense has ranked in passing attempts is 24th. 5 of those years it was 28th or lower. Similarly, his highest rank in passing yards was 23rd. His offense ranked 31st or 32nd in passing yards three of his six years as OC. Buffalo’s head coach, Sean McDermott, is from the defensive side. Passing TDs and net yards/attempt paint a similar picture.

Secondly, Josh Allen isn’t nearly as accurate a passer as Kirk Cousins:

Pro Football Focus

The difference is significant, as the graphic suggests. Upper right is better, lower left is worse. Josh Allen was the least accurate QB in the league according to these measures of both higher accurate passes, and avoiding uncatchable (as opposed to just a little off target) throws.

Additionally, the Bills run the Erhardt-Perkins system on offense, which is different terminology, and it remains to be seen how Diggs will adapt.

Diggs’ catch rate outdoors is also 10% lower than indoors, and the Bills have an outdoor stadium, as do all their division opponents. In fact, all the Bills’ games next year will be played in outdoor stadiums. It’s also lower against the AFC, and the AFC East in particular.

Diggs may not have been happy with his role on the Vikings, and/or some other aspect(s) of the Vikings organization, but he may come to miss the accuracy of Kirk Cousins, and the pleasant confines of US Bank stadium - not to mention TCO Performance Center.

All that is unfortunate for Stefon Diggs. He didn’t get to choose which team to go to.

Maybe things will improve. But the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.