News & Analysis

Metrics that Matter: Dominant WR duo in Minnesota

By Scott Barrett
Feb 21, 2018

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Sep 18, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs (14) celebrates his touchdown with wide receiver Adam Thielen (19) during the third quarter against the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings defeated the Packers 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

(Metrics that Matter is a regular offseason feature that examines some aspect of fantasy through a microscope to dive into the finer details.)

Last season, by ADP, Stefon Diggs was routinely being selected in the sixth round of fantasy drafts, while Adam Thielen was typically selected four rounds later, in the 10th. I liked both wide receivers, but didn’t have much separating them in my projections, and didn’t think Minnesota would be able to support two fantasy wide receivers in the WR2 range, so I ended up with a ton of exposure to Thielen and literally zero shares of Diggs. I was right in thinking Thielen was the better value, but I was wrong in entirely neglecting Diggs as a fantasy value. In reality, both wide receivers were dominant for fantasy football, with Thielen ranking 10th among wide receivers in PPR fantasy points per game and Diggs ranking 13th.

If I had known Sam Bradford would go down with an injury after Week 1 and not play again for the remainder of the season, I surely would have been even lower on both receivers. Instead, Thielen and Diggs combined to form what Sam Monson would later call the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL (I agree) and helped elevate Case Keenum and the offense as a whole (the Vikings ranked fifth in offensive points scored, despite losing their Week 1 starting quarterback and running back).

Should we have seen this coming?

Thielen was an undrafted free agent in 2013 and recorded only 20 receptions in his first three seasons in the NFL, but then had a breakout season in 2016 that earned him a three-year contract extension. I went out on a limb and suggested that his 2016 wasn’t a fluke, and instead he was actually one of the most efficient wide receiver seasons in recent memory. In 2016, Thielen was one of only two wide receivers (along with Michael Thomas) to rank top-20 in yards per route run, yards per target, WR rating, and drop rate. His 2016 was also the best season of any wide receiver this past decade in cornerback-adjusted fantasy points per target and also ranked top-10 (this past decade) in depth-adjusted yards per target over expectation. Oh, and he’s also an athletic freak.

Stefon Diggs was a fifth-round draft pick in 2015, but impressed as soon as he stepped onto the field. Through his first two seasons in the NFL, Diggs ranked fifth of 50 qualifying wide receivers in WR rating (passer rating when targeted) and 16th in yards per route run. Over this span he dropped only six of 142 catchable targets, or the fifth-best rate in the league.

How good was their 2017 season?

  • Diggs ranked eighth among all wide receivers in PFF grade, Thielen 10th. They were the only wide receiver teammates to both rank top-15 in PFF grade.
  • Both Diggs and Thielen ranked top-five among wide receivers in contested catch rate.
  • Of 93 qualifying wide receivers, Thielen ranked seventh in yards per route run, Diggs 19th. Thielen also ranked second-best among all wide receivers in yards per route run from the slot.
  • Of 93 qualifying wide receivers, Diggs ranked seventh-best, Thielen 19th-best in WR rating.
  • Of 52 qualifying wide receivers, Thielen ranked ninth, Diggs 17th in depth-adjusted yards per target over expectation.

What should we do for fantasy?

Despite their productive and hyper-efficient seasons in 2016 and 2017, there’s still some cause for concern. Diggs and Thielen were clearly able to elevate mediocre quarterback play on their way to some impressive fantasy numbers, but it’s hard to measure how much of this was them and how much of it was offensive coordinator (now Giants head coach) Pat Shurmur, who also has a history of elevating poor quarterback play. Although I think this concern is valid, it doesn’t necessarily negate just how ridiculous Thielen and Diggs have performed with two different quarterbacks over the past two years, and I’m probably still more bullish than bearish.

Early 2018 ADP places Thielen at WR12 and Diggs at WR19. In my rankings, I have Thielen WR14 and Diggs WR18. So, their ADP feels just about right to me.

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