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Stefon Diggs’ arrival is proof the Bills understand their championship opportunity

By trading for Stefon Diggs, Buffalo is taking advantage of the Patriots’ perceived weakness.

Divisional Round - Minnesota Vikings v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Bills know they’re close to a breakthrough.

After 17 years without a postseason appearance, they’ve made the playoffs in two of the last three seasons. Their 10-6 finish in 2019 marked the team’s best record of the millennium. With the Patriots pressing on without Tom Brady and in the midst of losing key contributors to free agency, the Bills’ window to claim their first division title since 1995 has never been opened wider.

So, on the first day of the NFL’s tampering window, Buffalo shot its shot. First came veteran signings like linebacker A.J. Klein and Mario Addison, complementing the team’s earlier addition of former Washington cornerback Josh Norman. Then, in the second-biggest trade of the day, the Bills pried Stefon Diggs (and a seventh-round pick) from the Vikings. In exchange, Buffalo gave up its first-round selection in this year’s draft and a combination of three different Day 3 selections this spring and next.

This is a big deal. And it’s proof the Bills understand the opportunity they’re facing in 2020.

Diggs is the field-stretching presence Josh Allen needs to become his best self

Diggs was a good wide receiver in his first four seasons with the Vikings. He scraped the surface of NFL greatness in year five.

The former fifth-round pick stepped into a bigger role for Minnesota following Adam Thielen’s knee injury. His 17.9 yards per catch were fourth-best in the NFL, but his 67 percent catch rate was at least five points higher than any of the three players who ranked above him. Every time Kirk Cousins targeted him the outcome was, on average, a 12-yard gain.

This proved Diggs’ status as a threat opposing defenses have to put atop their gameplans in the NFL. That’s also exactly what the Bills need.

While Buffalo acquired a handful of wideouts in free agency last offseason, the team’s depth chart was stocked exclusively with complementary targets. The Bills’ top receiver in 2019 was John Brown, who set career highs with 72 catches and 1,060 yards. However, he caught just 23 of his 44 targets in games against playoff teams and, more importantly, made only six catches on 15 passes thrown his way in a pair of losses to the Patriots — though he did make his lone reception in Week 16 count.

Adding Diggs to the lineup means Brown won’t be the top focus from opposing secondaries. He and Cole Beasley will be able to create windows of opportunity in the space Diggs creates by dashing downfield and pulling safeties back with him.

Diggs had his own struggles against good teams last fall; only one of his seven games with 75+ receiving yards came against a playoff team, and that was the secondary-starved Eagles. Still, his presence should help unlock a new level for the rest of the Bills’ wideouts, even when Diggs himself is not getting targets.

This is a boon for Allen. The third-year quarterback has improved over the course of his brief NFL career, but he still has a ways to go.

Diggs’ arrival puts new pressure on Allen’s shoulders

Allen has shown flashes of fulfilling the potential that made him the seventh overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft. At his best, he’s a big-armed quarterback who’s not afraid to take chances downfield or roast defenses with his legs in a pinch. At his worst, he’s an inaccurate, turnover-prone slopper who gets uncomfortable in the pocket mires the Bills’ offense in a world of bad choices.

The good news is he was able to boost his completion rate in 2019 thanks to an upgraded receiving corps led by Brown and Beasley. The bad news was he wasn’t able to crack the 60 percent barrier (from 52.8 percent to 58.8). He improved his decision-making and made smarter reads, but he was still capable of inexplicable brain farts, even in playoff games.

Despite all the grief he got coming out of Wyoming as an underdeveloped QB (and I’m guilty of piling on), he’s a player who seems to understand how to rise to big moments on the football field. Allen is led the Bills to a league-high four fourth-quarter comebacks last season.

Acquiring Diggs, the kind of receiver who can take a launched ball a million miles downfield and turn it from an overthrow into a touchdown, is the next step in unlocking that potential.

He’s also the kind of player who can ensure the Bills are on the happy side of a playoff miracle instead of the alternative.

But Diggs also takes away one excuse that had followed Allen across his first two seasons as a pro — that his cast of targets was lacking. That was certainly true in his rookie year when Zay Jones, currently a Raider, led the team in both catches and receiving yards. It was less true in 2019 when Brown and Beasley came to town and stepped up. If Allen can’t continue his growth with his shiny new addition leading the way in 2020, that’s going to be a red flag for anyone considering the Bills’ Super Bowl chances in the short term and the young QB’s status as a franchise QB in the long run.

Diggs has plenty to prove, even after five successful seasons as a Viking. His apparent unhappiness in Minnesota bled through his social media accounts. It’s unclear that a switch to a younger, less efficient quarterback will be the panacea for which he’s hoped.

Still, he’s capable of filling a WR1 role for a team in desperate need of one, and the four years and $47.5 million remaining on his contract are relatively peanuts compared to the five year, $100 million pact Amari Cooper recently signed with the Cowboys. The Bills paid a heavy price to lure Diggs to New York, giving up a first-round pick in a draft stacked with WR talent in the process.

It will be worth it if he can help deliver the team’s first division title since the Colts were part of the AFC East.