What Vikings can learn from Stefon Diggs experience and apply to Justin Jefferson

MINNEAPOLIS -- The March 2020 trade that sent Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills in return for draft picks, including the 22nd overall pick used to select Justin Jefferson, paid off for both sides.

Diggs had a terrific season, setting career highs in catches (127) and receiving yards (1,535), both of which ranked No. 1 among all receivers. Jefferson was the best of all 37 receivers drafted last April, with 1,400 receiving yards, which ranks second all-time for rookies.

With Diggs' Bills headed to the AFC Championship Game (6:40 p.m. ET Sunday, CBS), it's worth asking: Who won the trade, and would both teams do it again?

Surely each would make the deal again, and there is no "loser" in this trade. But there are lessons the Vikings can learn from the circumstances that got them to the point of trading a then-26-year-old Diggs so they don't face a similar situation in the future.

Diggs signed a five-year, $72 million extension in July 2018 when he was part of an offense that was set to feature him heavily, setting him up for his next big pay day. Diggs' deal, which averages $14.4 million per year, was considered a team-friendly contract.

When the Vikings shifted toward a run-heavy scheme once Kevin Stefanski took over as offensive coordinator in December 2018, the writing was on the wall for Diggs. Staying in Minnesota made it tougher to be paid like a true No. 1 receiver (he's the 16th-highest paid receiver based on yearly salary).

Jefferson's rookie season was better than any Diggs, a former fifth-round pick, had in his five years in Minnesota. Jefferson, 21, had seven 100-yard receiving games. Diggs topped out with five such games as a Viking in 2019. That is among the biggest regrets that should turn into lessons for this franchise. Quarterback Kirk Cousins had one of the most efficient seasons of his career in 2019 and the passing game looked as explosive as ever. But there was so much untapped potential, particularly with the use of Diggs.

In 2019, the Vikings ranked eighth in scoring and 16th in yards in a season that ended with a loss to San Francisco in the divisional playoffs. That was a game that featured Diggs early and then later he was an afterthought. The offense was aided by a top-five defense in points allowed that didn't have to deal with inexperience brought on by major turnover like the Vikings' 2020 defense.

Diggs followed up on an explosive 2018 season (102 receptions for 1,021 yards and nine touchdowns) in a pass-heavy scheme with a career-low 63 catches on just 94 targets in 2019. He still managed to cross the 1,000-yard threshold and had six touchdowns, but he was unhappy with his usage in a run-first offense. That was the catalyst to the end of his time in Minnesota.

How differently might things have gone had Diggs been utilized more like he has in Buffalo this season?

Diggs' 166 targets with the Bills led the NFL, and it paid off. The Bills boast the league's second-best offense in scoring and yards. Benefiting from Diggs was quarterback Josh Allen, whose increase in Total QBR from 2019 (32.2) to 2020 (81.6) was the largest in a single-season span in NFL history, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Allen finished the regular season second in expected points added on pass attempts and Diggs averaged 96 yards receiving per game.

Diggs' presence helped transform Allen into an MVP candidate and the Bills into a Super Bowl contender.

Had Diggs stuck around in Minnesota, who knows the level Cousins would have ascended to in 2020? He helped elevate Cousins in two seasons, with a 107.9 and 110.7 passer rating when targeted in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Looking at what the Vikings failed to do with Diggs in his final season can serve as a guide for avoiding the same mistake with Jefferson.

Jefferson ranked 18th in targets with 125 but still broke franchise and NFL records. Minnesota coaches admitted to under utilizing him in Weeks 1 and 2, which makes his 1,400-yard season in essentially 14 games all that more impressive.

"What if I would've had those two games starting?" Jefferson said after his final game of the season. "And having the same targets I had this year, who knows what I would've did with that? I guess I'll just wait until next year to start out from Week 1 and hopefully I get more yards than I did this year."

And it's not just those two weeks the Vikings can learn from. They should also look to get him the ball earlier in games. Jefferson was tied for 36th among all receivers in first-half targets, averaging 3.3 per game. Diggs, on the other hand, was ranked third, with 5.7 targets in the first half, according to ESPN Stats & Information

Part of that has to do with how the Vikings try to establish the run early. Dalvin Cook, who finished second in rushing attempts, yards and touchdowns, has developed into the Vikings' identity on offense. And that makes Jefferson's season even more remarkable.

But the Vikings' preaching continuity with their offense, even with the likely retirement of coordinator Gary Kubiak this offseason, means Jefferson shouldn't expect things to change much in 2021.

"In this offense we're going to run the football, so that's going to open up a lot of explosive plays for Justin, but he also has to stay patient because (there's) going to be times where we're running the ball well and we're not throwing it to him every play," Cousins said in Week 17.

"He did a great job this year of being ready when his number was called and just continuing to show up for us. And it's also impressive to look back and realize that the role he had for us Week 1 and Week 2 was not the same role he had Week 3 and beyond. That's encouraging as well to think what he could have done with two more weeks as the ‘X' [receiver]"

Even in an offense that ranked 27th in pass attempts, Jefferson's presence elevates the potential of the entire unit.

"When you have a guy that's that dynamic and can be that consistent playing at that high of a level, it raises the level of play from the guys around him," receiver Adam Thielen said. "And he's that type of guy that raises the level of play around him because he's such a good person on and off the field, the way that he works, the way that he handles his business, it's impressive."

Minnesota lucked out with Jefferson being available to them at No. 22, yet the Vikings still went 7-9 in his first season. If they want things to be different, they need a hard dose of introspection from everything that led to this blockbuster trade to how to get the most out of their top playmakers in the prime of their careers so history doesn't repeat itself with Jefferson down the line.