Fantasy Football: The Vikings' Change of Emphasis Shouldn't Put You Off Stefon Diggs
Towards the end of the 2018 season, the Minnesota Vikings decided that their experiment of having John DeFilippo as their offensive coordinator needed to be brought to an end. There are many reasons for why this happened when it did, not least a spluttering offense that failed to amass 300 yards of offense in four of their previous five games after Week 14. A major stumbling block was seen as DeFilippo's reluctance to run the ball, a strategy at odds with the philosophy favored by head coach Mike Zimmer.
In his stead, the Vikings promoted Kevin Stefanski to the OC spot and enjoyed a return to the good old fire and brimstone days of leaning on the ground game. It is thought that this is an emphasis that the team would like to continue as we head into the 2019 season. But what does this mean for the members of the Vikings passing game, and Stefon Diggs in particular?
The Stefanski Effect
There is little opposition to the suggestion that DeFilippo heavily favored the passing game over the rushing one during his tenure running the Vikings offense.
|Plays per game||64|
|Pts per drive||1.7|
There is also little opposition to the fact that during this span, Diggs was among the top fantasy performers at his position. Despite playing second fiddle to Adam Thielen, Diggs still commanded a 24% share of the Vikings targets, reeling in 88 of his 125 targets for 915 yards and six touchdowns. He was the WR11 in PPR scoring during this time.
The change in offensive mindset under Stefanski was marked. It actually lead to the Vikings offense improving their offensive efficiency, but not in ways that benefited Diggs. Although this was probably to be expected, considering the Vikings pass to run ratio fell to 1.07 between Weeks 15-17. Under DeFilippo, it had been 2.05.
|Plays per game||58|
|Pts per drive||2.1|
Diggs actually saw his target share increase to 29% during the seasons final three weeks. However, he went from averaging more than 10 targets per outing to just south of eight, while his receptions fell from 7.3 per game to 4.7. His yardage fell appreciably too, from 76 to just over 35.
His fantasy points per game "only" fell from 18.54 to 14.5. But this was due to his snaring three touchdowns over the seasons final three weeks, giving him a scoring rate of 13% against a 4.8% rate between Weeks 1 to 14.
Our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric all too readily captures just how big a drop Diggs suffered to his efficiency in the closing weeks of the season. Between Weeks 1 to 4, Diggs Target NEP per target was 0.23, while his Reception NEP per target was 0.52. These fell dramatically to -0.3 and 0.41 in the last three games of the season.
The silver lining to this is that Diggs was far from the only person to see his form disappear as the season wore on. Quarterback Kirk Cousins was also the victim of a devastating loss of efficiency down the stretch in 2018. Cousins Passing NEP per play under DeFilippo was 0.06, well below the league average of 0.12 (minimum 500 drop backs) mark you. But with Stefanski at the helm, Cousins saw his numbers plummet to -0.04. This was the same mark that rookie Josh Allen averaged over the course of his entire season.
Cousins also experienced a massive drop in his Success Rate - the number of plays that positively affected a players NEP - at the same time. This fell from 51.08% to 38.89%. Only Josh Rosen had a lower mark than this over the course of the whole season.
If Diggs is to be a successful fantasy option in 2019, he will need to see a marked improvement in the play of the man tasked with getting him the ball. The team has already taken steps towards improving the protection of Cousins, with the drafting of Garrett Bradbury and Dru Samia after being severely lacking in that area a year ago. Cousins was sacked on 6.2% of his dropbacks last season, absorbing at least two sacks in all but three games.
Improving the efficiency of Cousins will be especially important if the team is going to be as run-heavy in 2019 as they were to close out the 2018 season. There is evidence to suggest that this is not likely to happen, which is good news for the likes of Diggs.
Who Is Really Running the Vikings' Offense?
Despite holding the title of offensive coordinator, there is little to suggest that Stefanski will actually be the man responsible for putting this offense together, nor shaping its overall philosophy. That task would seem to be falling upon the shoulders of "Offensive Advisor" Gary Kubiak, former head coach of the Houston Texans and Denver Broncos, with whom he won a Super Bowl following the 2015 season.
Despite a long association with the Broncos, including a run as offensive coordinator between 1995 and 2005 when the team were on average 6th in rushing attempts per season, Kubiak has not been as committed to pounding the rock whenever he has been the play-caller himself (Mike Shanahan took that responsibility with the Broncos during Kubiak's first spell with the team.) Indeed, between 2006 and 2016, encompassing his time with the Texans, Broncos and a one-season stop as the offensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens, Kubiak's teams have been on average around 15th in rush attempts.
Indeed, despite having at his disposal a stud running back like Arian Foster during his tenure with the Texans, Kubiak's teams have averaged a pass to run ratio of 1.34 since 2006. Granted, it did fall all the way to 0.91 in 2011 when Foster was in his pomp, and there is the worry that maybe Kubiak will utilize the ground game more heavily with the Vikings. But despite a strong reliance on the unit under Stefanski, it would not be accurate to say that the Vikings were very good at running the ball whenever they chose to do so last season. They finished 30th in Rushing NEP per play with 0.06.
While teams may want to be run first, run-heavy and run often, the NFL has a nasty habit of sending even the best-laid plans somewhat astray. The Vikings face the 14th toughest rushing defensive schedule in 2019, according to Sharp Football. By contrast, they can look forward to the 8th softest passing slate.
There are any number of factors in play that can and will determine how good a season Stefon Diggs can look forward to having this year. I believe all of them, when looked at separately, go some way towards making his future appear rosy. If the Vikings buy into the Stefanski doctrine and run almost as much as they pass, they showed last season that Diggs is the man they want to target when they are forced to pass the ball. The number one option on an NFL passing game is, therefore, a player who, with efficient quarterback play, is a player to be targeted.
If we go the other way, and assume that Gary Kubiak's influence on the offense, not to mention a stiff slate of rush defenses, keeps the forward pass in play as a viable means of moving the ball, then we saw last season that even as the second option on the Vikings Diggs was able to secure plenty of opportunities to make plays and put fantasy points down. The lack of a viable third wide receiver on the Vikings should ensure a concentration of targets on Diggs and Thielen.
Of course, all of this hinges on the return to form of Cousins. But the team has taken steps towards better protecting their franchise quarterback, and as a result, they will hope he justifies his lofty price tag and gives his playmakers a chance to...erm, make plays. Assuming this happens, and Mike Zimmer is able to tolerate an offense that doesn't resemble one from the 1970s, then Diggs should be able to live up to his WR12 place in our projections.