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With Stefon Diggs, Buffalo Bills chose a steady paycheck over the lottery

Buffalo prioritized an established veteran over the hope and promise of a rookie

NFL: Preseason-Minnesota Vikings at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills traded four draft picks to the Minnesota Vikings to acquire star wide receiver Stefon Diggs and a draft pick. This we already knew. What we also knew was that the Bills gave up their first-round pick, No. 22 overall this year, to acquire Diggs.

Typically, first-round draft picks are treated like gold in the NFL. Teams don’t trade them away unless they’ve moving up in a draft or acquiring who they believe will be a franchise-altering player. Clearly, the Bills valued having a player who has already proven himself at the NFL level over the uncertainty that comes with selecting a rookie or, in this case, multiple rookies for the 2020 season.

Peter King, founder of The MMQB and current columnist at NBC Sports, thinks that Buffalo overpaid in acquiring Diggs. He wrote, “I like Diggs a lot, but he’s not the game-changer that Hopkins is, and Buffalo traded, in effect, a one, four and five for him. Pretty rich, I thought, particularly in a year when so many top receivers will be there for Buffalo, who entered the week picking 22, 54 and 86.”

With respect to King, I disagree wholeheartedly with both of his main assertions here. We’ll discuss the draft pick compensation last, since that’s been covered ad nauseam here and elsewhere in this time of quarantine. The bigger issue at play is questioning Diggs as a game-changing receiver.

Granted, Hopkins is among the league’s best wideouts (in my opinion, he is the best in the league), but when comparing Hopkins and Diggs, they are both clearly elite-level talents. In seven years, Hopkins has been targeted 1,048 times in his 110 games. He has 632 receptions for 8,602 yards and 54 touchdowns. In his five-year career, Stefon Diggs has been targeted 534 times. He has 365 receptions for 4,326 yards and 30 touchdowns.

Spreading those averages out over a 16-game season, Hopkins averages a “slash line” of 92/1251/8, which is quite comparable to Diggs’s line: 83/1057/7. Furthermore, their per-game production is nearly identical, with Diggs averaging 5/66/.4 per game over his career and Hopkins averaging 6/78/.5 per game.

Diggs absolutely changes the game for Buffalo, as his ability to beat man coverage is something the squad sorely lacked last year. Add in his strength and quickness, which allows him to beat press coverage as well, and the team should expect an improvement against the kind of defense that vexed them late in the year against the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the New England Patriots.

The comparisons between the two wideouts are inevitable given the fact that they were traded in the same offseason and their respective teams received entirely different packages for their players. While Minnesota received fair compensation for such a talented player, the Houston Texans were absolutely fleeced by the Arizona Cardinals, who acquired an All-Pro talent by sending an aging, overpaid running back (David Johnson) and a second-round pick to Houston. The teams swapped picks in round four, as well.

Buffalo, on the other hand, traded four picks: their choice in round one (No. 22 overall), the Cleveland Browns’ fifth-round choice (No. 155 overall, which was acquired in a trade for Wyatt Teller), the New England Patriots’ sixth-round choice (No. 201 overall, which was acquired in a trade for Russell Bodine), and their 2021 fourth-round choice. Minnesota also sent Buffalo its seventh-round selection (No. 239 overall) to complete the trade.

King’s issue with Buffalo trading those picks centered on the fact that this is a deep receiver class—one that should have plenty of talent throughout. He said that Buffalo entered the week set to select 22, 54, and 86 overall. After the trade, Buffalo is now set to select...54, 86, and 128 overall.

The Bills had nine draft picks in the 2020 NFL Draft prior to the deal. Now, they have seven. According to the Rich Hill draft value chart, Buffalo’s package of picks either adds up to 286.45 points (if you value their 2021 fourth-round choice at the same number as Buffalo’s current fourth-round pick) or 275.23 points (if you value that 2021 selection as a fifth-round choice). That would be enough to move from No. 22 overall to No. 18 overall, which is valued at 286.72 points.

Here’s the question that needs to be answered: If you could draft Stefon Diggs at No. 18 overall, would you? The answer from most people when looking at Buffalo’s needs would be a resounding yes. When viewing the deal through that lens, it looks much more like fair compensation to me, as the Bills locked in a stud player at a position of need by converting discarded players into what they wanted.

Some have said that Buffalo wasted too much valuable draft capital in making the trade, but Buffalo essentially traded a first-round pick, Teller, Bodine, and a fourth-round pick for Diggs and a seventh-round pick. The Bills converted two backup offensive linemen who probably would have been released into the extra capital necessary to snare one of the league’s best receivers. That’s a trade you have to make 100 times out of 100.

What about the argument that Buffalo could have picked a comparable player in the draft? As with any draft choice, there is an inherent risk that comes with the uncertainty of the process. Who will be available? How will that player adjust to the NFL play? How will he adjust to NFL pay? Generally, it’s a safer bet to acquire a proven veteran than it is to acquire draft choices, especially when a team is looking for immediate impact.

I looked back through all of the first rounds of each NFL Draft through 2012, the year prior to Hopkins being selected. Sorting first by total receptions and then by total receiving yards, I found that many of the top rookie seasons were not had by first-round picks. While the majority still came from round one, teams were just as likely to find a stud wideout in later rounds (like Diggs, who was originally a fifth-round choice) as they were in round one.

Of the 20 best seasons by a rookie in terms of total receptions since 2012, only eight came from a first-round pick. Of those eight, four (Sammy Watkins, Odell Beckham Jr., Kelvin Benjamin, and Mike Evans) came from wideouts drafted in 2014. When sorting by total receiving yards, nine of the top 20 players were first-round picks, and the same four players listed above made up 20% of the overall group.

Those players who placed in the top twenty averaged a “slash line” of 70/966/7, which is obviously phenomenal. While Diggs’s career averages are better, they are comparable. This would seem to indicate that Buffalo would have been better served drafting a player in the first round, thereby keeping their other picks, rather than making the trade. Of course, there’s another layer to the argument.

When continuing further down the list, the “misses” start to show. Of the 60 best seasons by a rookie receiver since 2012, only 17 came from first-round picks when sorted by total receptions and only 14 when sorted by total receiving yards. Since we already know that most of those were top-20 seasons, numbers 21-60 are populated mostly by players drafted outside of the first round.

The players who make up those spots (21-60) who were drafted in the first round averaged a far different slash line than their counterparts who “hit.” When including the players who were in the top 20, the slash line is 61/832/5. If you exclude those players, the line drops precipitously, all the way to 46/591/3.

Essentially, the Bills figured that one young, proven wide receiver on a long-term contract (Diggs is currently signed for four more years at $47.5 million total) was more valuable than the crap shoot that is the NFL Draft. General manager Brandon Beane would rather have a steady paycheck than try to win the lottery. That seems less like an overpay and more like sound strategy to me.