The Stefon Diggs trade was one of the most polarizing moves made this past offseason as the Vikings parted ways with the “Minneapolis Miracle” star, trading Diggs to the Buffalo Bills for a first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft along with three additional picks.
Vikings rookie Justin Jefferson, who was picked No. 22 overall with the pick acquired from the Bills, has made the trade a win-win for all parties involved. The Vikings rookie has lived up to the bid of replacing Diggs on a cheaper rookie contract, while the Bills (8-3) are one of the top teams in the AFC with the help of Diggs, who is having a career year in his first season away from Minnesota.
The drama and rumors surrounding cryptic tweets, Diggs forcing his way out and the Vikings’ true feelings about Diggs have been put to rest. However, an insider offered some insight into what potentially made Diggs tick with a Vikings franchise that has a reputation for rubbing some players the wrong way.
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Insider: ‘Problems Can Arise When Diggs Feels Betrayed’
Diggs has proven to be an emotional leader on any team he’s played on since his college years at Maryland.
Bills offensive coordinator Mike Daboll called Terrapins coach Mike Locksley to gain insight on his new star player the day Diggs was traded in March.
“He’s highly, highly competitive, he’s very smart, he’s a good teammate and he’s real,” Daboll told ESPN’s Marcel Louis-Jacques. “Stef’s real, he wears his emotions on his sleeves and that’s what I respect about him.”
Louis-Jacques elaborated on the conversation the Bills coordinator and Diggs’ former college coach had, writing:
Specifically, Locksley emphasized honesty with Diggs and said the receiver isn’t the diva he might have appeared to be at times before his trade from Minnesota. But he warned problems can arise if Diggs feels betrayed.
“The only advice I gave to Brian about Stef was Stef is huge on trust,” Locksley said. “That’s where he and I are so much alike, in that he will give you everything he has if he knows that you care about him and he knows he can trust you to be consistent with who you are
“When trust is broken with him, I will tell you that it’s really hard to repair… because he believes in loyalty and trust — that’s part of his DNA.”
Diggs’ feelings towards the Vikings, like his cryptic tweets, have always been ambiguous and nuanced. In his farewell Players Tribune article he wrote in the aftermath of the trade, Diggs shouted out Kirk Cousins, Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph and the fans that made the start to his career so special.
The former fifth-round pick rose to stardom and became a household name after his game-winning walk-off touchdown against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC playoffs in 2017, reinspiring a Vikings fan base that had last watched their team in the NFC Playoffs in 2010.
But underneath the sentiments were unresolved issues that led to Diggs’ departure.
Diggs Caught in the Crossfire Between Front Office and Mike Zimmer
It seemed the Vikings were destined to be Super Bowl contenders the remainder of the decade after signing Cousins and extending Diggs, solidifying a formidable passing attack to complement the league’s best defense.
Zimmer made his feelings known that he was not thrilled about signing Cousins for the price the Vikings paid — pointing to the inevitability of having to release several stars on defense.
NFL feature writer Tyler Dunne detailed a series of Zimmer’s tactics that offseason to force the offensive coaching staff to employ a more run-focused approach:
Problems began that spring when, with the offense’s play script in hand, Zimmer would call specific plays on defense to blow up whatever the offense was trying to run, per sources. There’s a reason Minnesota never injected RPOs into its scheme like every other smart team seemed to after Nick Foles (miraculously) upset Tom Brady in the Super Bowl — Zimmer purposely mucked those plays up and then chastised the offense for being too gimmicky.
It became a running joke with offensive players.
Cheat code in hand, Zimmer called plays to screw them over.
When the offense followed orders and stuck to a steady diet of runs and play-action and screens in practice, Zimmer asked them to run more dropback passes the next practice. They did. They felt Zimmer’s wrath. “What!?” one source remembers him shouting. “We’re a dropback f****** team now?”
Dunne continued that while the offense saw success in 2018, Zimmer was still unhappy with the team’s model:
Nonetheless, the offense took flight. Adam Thielen became the first player ever to eclipse 100 yards in each of the first eight games of a season. Cousins became the first quarterback ever to throw for 4,000 yards, 30 touchdowns and 10 picks or less while completing 70 percent of his passes. Diggs was happy. Diggs averaged 10 targets per game. And if not for putrid kicking, a scary incident involving Everson Griffen before a loss to the Bills (one source recalls the building being on lockdown for three hours, saying “guys were on edge, concerned”) and the defense hemorrhaging 556 yards to the Rams, the Vikings no doubt could’ve entered a Nov. 18 showdown at Chicago even better than 5-3-1.
And yet… Zimmer was boiling.
To him, this was not how you won in the NFL. All this passing.
Out of that night’s 25-20 loss on national TV, the head coach issued a public mandate that the Vikings needed to run the ball more. Just like that, everyone knew the Vikings were going to run, promptly shut down the run, the offensive coordinator was fired and — in Week 17, against the Bears’ B team, at home, a playoff spot on the line — the Vikings produced 10 points and 164 yards. Says one of the many ex-assistants to cycle through this staff: “That tells you everything you need to know about what the players think of Zim. Right there. That game.”
No Special Treatment for Diggs
The Week 17 loss to the Bears in 2018 was a wake-up call to the fan base that something was not working right in the Vikings organization.
That “trust” that’s so important to Diggs began to dissolve as the organization was at odds with itself in the 2019 offseason.
Yes, Diggs had his immature and stubborn moments, but Zimmer’s power grab on the organization had already taken hold. Onto its fourth offensive coordinator since Diggs was drafted in 2015, the Vikings offense was dictated to doing things Zimmer’s way.
Diggs’ role in the offense was diminishing as the team turned to a run-heavy scheme. Diggs seemed left out of any conversation with Zimmer about his role on the offense you’d expect a team to give a star player that had just signed a $72 million contract. But every player is subject to the same praise and criticism in Zimmer’s eyes.
Dunne touched on the final months of Diggs’ time in Minnesota:
As the offense traveled back into time and the millions invested in Cousins and Diggs and Thielen now seemed somewhat wasted, some teammates agreed with Diggs’ intent. Run. Run. Pass. Run. Run. Pass. Few slants. Few double-moves. Nothing to get Cousins into a rhythm at all. Diggs saw his career flashing before his eyes — while other wideouts were making nearly $20 million a year — and wanted out.
A more progressive coach might’ve made fixing this relationship Priority No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 by bringing him into the office and telling him he’ll find ways to get him the ball.
Many see no such wiggle room with Zimmer.
“It’s the exact opposite,” the one source recalls. “It’s ‘Do what you’re f****** told.’”
When Diggs did not fall in line and when repercussions came down after he missed a practice in 2019, the relationship grew sour. Diggs turned to social media to voice his frustrations and became an increasing distraction in the locker room, leading to his cryptic tweets that signaled his grievances and readiness for a new chapter in his career.
The Vikings obliged, taking an offer from the Bills that worked out for both teams.
This offseason, Zimmer said “I wish [Diggs] well. He’s a good kid. He worked hard for me. If you said somebody was a pain in the butt, you probably wouldn’t say it was him. I hope he has a great career and finishes up strong.”
Diggs, on the other hand, did not mention Zimmer in his Players Tribune farewell to the franchise.
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Trevor Squire is a Heavy contributor covering the Minnesota Vikings and journalism graduate from the University of Minnesota — Twin Cities. Connect with him on Twitter @trevordsquire and join our Vikings community at Heavy on Vikings on Facebook.