Going Deep: The Relative Value of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs

David Saunders analyzes the Minnesota WR duo and tells you who could be the better value for 2019

Since 2015, not one wide receiver taken in the first round of the NFL draft has tallied more than 82 receptions in a season, and Amari Cooper is the only one to break 1,000 yards in a season. The Vikings’ former 5th round draft pick Stefon Diggs and undrafted free agent Adam Thielen each surpassed 100 receptions and 1,000 yards last year.

It is no surprise that after having career years in 2018 and finishing WR7 and WR10, Thielen and Diggs are both being drafted early. Many analysts have the Minnesota duo ranked back-to-back or in the same tier, but will they live up to the expectations they set for themselves? And who is the better value?

 

Last Year

 

Diggs and Thielen had the most productive season of their careers last year, and the offense truly revolved around them and QB Kirk Cousins. Here are their numbers, per Pro Football Reference:

Name G Tgt Rec Yds TD PPR Pts Pts/G
Adam Thielen 16 153 113 1373 9 307.3 19.21
Stefon Diggs 15 149 102 1021 9 266.3 17.75

Most teams would be happy to have one receiver with such a season, let alone two. Looking at targets, we can see just how heavily this tandem was utilized; the only team with two wide receivers who combined for more targets were the Steelers (Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster). The aforementioned Cousins targeted his receivers at a higher rate than any other position and was largely rewarded for it. He posted a passer rating of 111.0 when targeting Thielen and 102.9 when targeting Diggs, much higher than the league average of 92.9.

If we dive deeper into some target related stats from Player Profiler, we can get a clearer picture of how each receiver was used and valued by Cousins and the Vikings coaching staff.

Name Tgt Tgt/G Air Yards Yds/Tgt Tgt Share RZ Tgt Share EZ Tgt Share
Adam Thielen 153 9.6 1002 8.9 26.2% 28.6% 26.8%
Stefon Diggs 149 9.9 607 6.9 26.0% 26.5% 30.0%

One thing that immediately jumps out is the difference in air yards. Thielen has 395 more air yards than Diggs on 4 more targets. One would think that Thielen, who lined up in the slot for 46.7% of his snaps, would receive more targets on shorter routes than Diggs, who only lined up in the slot for 16.1% of snaps.

A big reason for this difference is Cousins’ efficiency when targeting slot wide receivers compared to outside wide receivers. According to Scott Barrett of PFF, Kirk Cousins is 5th in passer rating targeting the slot (105.2) and 13th when targeting the outside receiver (90.1). If we combine that with the fact that top cornerbacks rarely leave the outside of the field, it explains why Thielen has been receiving better opportunities than Diggs.

Although Cousins has been better while targeting Thielen, Diggs has an almost identical target share while being targeted slightly less in the red zone and slightly more in the end zone. Diggs also leads the team in targets per game, barely edging out Thielen 9.9 to 9.6. The higher target total for Thielen was largely due to playing 137 more snaps than Diggs. The Vikings averaged 63.5 offensive plays a game–the equivalent of roughly two fewer games for Diggs in 2018.

On a per-snap basis, Thielen and Diggs were equally productive: both tallied .304 PPR points per snap in 2018. There is a saying that “the best ability is availability” and every year Stefon Diggs has been in the league he’s increased his snap count, but he has yet to play 16 games in a season. He only missed one game last year but was out-snapped by his receiving partner Adam Thielen in every game except for week 17.

 

Outlook for 2019

 

These snaps do not occur in a vacuum. For wide receivers, it is better when your snaps come on passing plays, and the 2018 Minnesota Vikings passed more than almost anyone in the league. According to NFL Savant, the Vikings threw the ball on 630 plays, good for 6th in the league and the most ever under head coach Mike Zimmer. Zimmer prefers to run the ball more, but due to recurring injuries to RB Dalvin Cook and a poor run-blocking offensive line, the 2018 Vikings were forced to throw the ball 78 more times than their average in the four years prior. 

Now going into 2019, the Vikings have drafted a new center, signed a new right guard, and moved their 2018 center back to his natural position of left guard. They also have a new offensive coordinator, Kevin Stefanski, who has been with the Vikings since 2006 and who has been promoted from tight ends coach to running backs coach to quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator under Zimmer.

Along with a new offensive coordinator, the Vikings added running guru Gary Kubiak to the staff, serving as assistant head coach and an offensive advisor. Kubiak’s preferred zone blocking scheme is a perfect match for Dalvin Cook, who is one year further removed from his 2017 ACL injury. These changes to scheme and staff make a regression to the mean in their pass and run play selection extremely likely. Fewer passing plays means fewer targets, receptions, and fantasy points for Diggs and Thielen in 2019.

The assumed decrease in passing plays is not the only signal for a probable regression for Diggs and Thielen. In the last decade, the only wide receiver duo able to repeat a 250 point apiece season was Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker for the 2012 and 2013 Broncos. Those two years in Denver, QB Peyton Manning averaged 46 touchdowns and a 110.5 passer rating. Cousins’ career highs are 30 touchdowns and a 101.6 passer rating.

 

Value and Draft Price

 

Last year Stefon Diggs was more of a boom/bust player, whereas Adam Thielen was more consistent week to week. Thielen’s standard deviation of 8.3 points was lower than Diggs at 9.2 points but not as big of a gap as expected. Diggs had the best week of the season with 35.9 points but did not have the worst one. That was Thielen, who put up a stinker in Week 15 when he only managed 3.9 points.

The impact of Dalvin Cook returning was discussed earlier, but we don’t have to wait until next year to see how he can impact the production of Minnesota’s Wide Receivers. Since 2017, Diggs and Thielen have played together in 14 games with Cook and 15 games without him. Here are their splits:

splits with and without Dalvin Cook

Diggs not only scored more fantasy points per game with Cook, but he also receives a significant bump in targets when Dalvin is playing. A healthy offense for the Vikings means increased utilization of Diggs and a significant rise in production for him as well. 

Kevin Stefanski was only Offensive Coordinator for three games last year, but they coincided with Thielen’s two worst games. He scored 3.9 points in week 15 and 6.7 in week 17 while Stefanski was calling the plays. Diggs averaged 14.5 points in those games.

At the time of this writing, Thielen’s ADP is 3.02 and Diggs’ is 3.11, according to Fantasy Football Calculator. That puts them as the 11th and 14th Wide Receivers off the board. The slight drop from their 7th and 10th place finish in 2018 points to general disbelief in the fantasy community that they can repeat their 2018 production.

Stefon Diggs’ 19.87 PPR points per game with Dalvin Cook over the last two years would have ranked 6th for wide receivers last year. That puts him behind Julio Jones and before Michael Thomas who are both 1st rounders. If Diggs can stay healthy, he could be an absolute steal as a late 3rd or early 4th round pick. He’s the Vikings receiver I most want this year.

 

Featured image by Nathan Mills (@NathanMillsPL on Twitter)

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