MINNEAPOLIS — Stefon Diggs’s teammates could sense the defiance when he arrived for his first offseason workouts with the Minnesota Vikings in 2015, the burn he carried as a potential first-round talent out of Maryland who was selected in the fifth round of the NFL draft that spring.
It carried through the first three weeks of Diggs’s rookie season, when he was inactive and left to watch the games in street clothes because the Vikings had more promising options at wide receiver and on special teams to begin the year.
“Until a guy went down, that’s when he first got his chance,” said Jarius Wright, a sixth-year wide receiver for the Vikings. “I’ve seen him when he was inactive, and I’ve seen him where he is now.”
Where Diggs is now is somewhat stunning given his birth into the league. He has turned into one of the steals of the 2015 draft, when 19 wide receivers were selected before him. None of those players rank in the NFL’s top 20 in receiving yards through the first four weeks of the season.
Diggs is atop that list, leading the league with 97.8 yards per game (391 yards on 22 catches) despite lingering questions surrounding Minnesota’s shaky starting quarterback situation. Will backup Case Keenum improve before Monday night’s game at Chicago? When will starter Sam Bradford be ready to return from a knee injury suffered in a win over New Orleans in the opener? And will former starter Teddy Bridgewater, who has been out since shredding his knee in training camp in 2016, ever be back?
“We’re going to believe in the guy. Case is up after Sam went down, so you know how we kind of handle it when somebody goes down,” Diggs said after last week’s 14-7 loss to Detroit dropped the Vikings to 2-2. “We’re pulling for our guy to come back, but until then, we have to move forward.”
Diggs has cut through all of that noise through the first month, delivering one of the best four-week stretches to open the season in Vikings history. He has a league-leading eight catches of 20 yards or more in that span, tying franchise marks held by Randy Moss and Jake Reed.
Diggs had three of those catches alone in the loss to Detroit last week, when Keenum struggled and the offense was dealt another serious blow after rookie running back Dalvin Cook suffered a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament injury.
Diggs had an opportunity to let loose any potential frustration after Sunday’s game, when a reporter asked him about several no-calls when he tangled with Lions defensive backs, including one play that left Diggs ripping off his helmet near the sideline after storming off the field.
“I’m still young. You’re not going to get a lot of calls. It’s okay. You got to work for it. A guy holding isn’t an excuse not to catch the ball,” Diggs said. “It happens, it happens. Of course you’re going to have a reaction to it when it does happen.”
It offered a glimpse into Diggs’s mentality, which was galvanized at Maryland when entire defensive game plans were built to stop the former five-star recruit. He was not only used to constant attention from the opposing secondary, but also constant quarterback shuffles in College Park, a program that has been recently notorious for instability under center.
As soon as Diggs arrived in Minnesota after declaring for the draft following his junior year, he began learning from a crop of players who had been in similar draft positions coming out of college.
That included Wright, who felt snubbed as a fourth-round pick out of Arkansas in 2012, as well as Adam Thielen, an undrafted free agent out of Minnesota State who was picked up by the Vikings in 2013.
“You try to make it as worse as possible, if that’s the right way to say it, on people who pass on you,” Thielen said. “I knew from Day One, when you see [Diggs] in OTA’s his rookie year, you could see it right away.”
Only one other NFL receiver has seven catches of 20 yards or more in the first four weeks this season — Thielen, who ranks third behind only Diggs and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown in receiving yardage with 89.5 per game. Those numbers beg the question: Is this unheralded duo the best wide receiver tandem in the league?
“It’s really early to say all of that,” Diggs said.
No tandem has been as productive in the face of change at quarterback throughout the first month, when Diggs appears to have moved to the cusp of stardom. He has become one of the faces of the franchise in just over two years and had heaps of media responsibilities thrown on his plate last week, including an appearance on the 6 p.m. edition of “SportsCenter.”
Diggs sat alone in his corner of the locker room last Friday, watching film on his tablet and nibbling on a hot plate of food catered by the team. This is where he often picks the brain of Thielen on certain fundamentals, and Thielen has gone to Diggs for advice on how to sharpen his footwork at the top of his routes. That has helped Diggs flourish all over the field — in the slot, out wide, anywhere with any quarterback, really.
“Just trying to do everything I can to grow,” he said, “and get better.”
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