On April 21, 2015, Stefon Diggs arrived at the Ravens’ facility for the team’s local-prospect day. The junior wide receiver, a former blue-chip recruit who’d stayed home to play for Maryland, was by then well known. The draft was only nine days away. This was one more look at the prospect who’d make everyone look bad.
As receivers cycled through combine-style drills, Wake Forest’s E.J. Scott remembers seeing the “Stefon I knew.” They’d been teammates for two years at Olney’s Good Counsel High School, then faced off in the Atlantic Coast Conference. In Owings Mills, Diggs was doing what he’d done his whole career. He ran routes unlike anyone else. He made one-handed catches look easy. He led every drill confidently, the first receiver up, the best player in the group.
Diggs did not, according to Scott, look like a fifth-round pick. So why couldn’t anyone else see it?
“That’s the million-dollar question, I guess,” said Scott, an NFL agent and former wide receiver himself. “But I definitely don’t have an answer for it.”
Six years later, the question still confounds. Diggs, the NFL’s leading receiver after an All-Pro season with the Buffalo Bills, is “one that got away,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh acknowledged Thursday. They’d studied him, he said, and still they’d missed on him. By the time the Minnesota Vikings took Diggs No. 146 overall, general manager Ozzie Newsome had drafted six players, including a first-round wideout — Central Florida’s Breshad Perriman.
Sometimes it can seem as difficult to cover Diggs as it is to understand why he fell so late into Day 3, the 19th wide receiver off the board. There was room for growth, but he was a hard worker and only 21. There had been injuries, but nothing too serious. There had been a suspension, but it wasn’t a huge red flag.
In interviews this week with friends and former coaches ahead of the NFL’s divisional-round playoffs, a pre-draft portrait of Diggs emerged: self-assured, athletically gifted, respectful, dedicated to his craft. The Diggs of 2015 they describe is in many ways the Diggs the NFL couldn’t stop in 2020, the record-breaking star whom Harbaugh jokingly called “Ravens enemy No. 1” inside Bills Stadium on Saturday night.
“Stefon Diggs should’ve been a first-round receiver,” said former Maryland and Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith, who helped guide him through the draft process in 2015. “Period.”
A fading star
After Diggs’ first season in College Park, it wasn’t hard to imagine him turning into a Day 1 draft pick. Every time Diggs touched the ball, he seemed capable of making it onto “SportsCenter.” As a true freshman, he finished with 848 receiving yards and 1,896 all-purpose yards, the second most in a single season in Maryland history. He’d spent part of the season catching passes from a converted linebacker, and he still finished second in ACC Rookie of the Year voting.
Injuries cut short Diggs’ next two years, and poor quarterback play hampered him when he was healthy. As a sophomore, Diggs caught 34 passes for 587 yards and three touchdowns, but a broken fibula in his right leg sidelined him for nearly half the season. In 2014, Diggs’ final year, he finished with a career-high 62 catches for 792 yards and five touchdowns. A lacerated kidney forced him to miss three games.
In what was Diggs’ last college game, a Foster Farms Bowl loss to Stanford, he finished with 10 catches for 138 yards. A few days later, he announced he was turning pro. “We really thought about everything and weighed the pros and cons of staying at Maryland versus entering the draft,” Diggs said in January 2015, “and we decided that this is the best decision for me.”
The further along in the draft process he got, the worse a decision it seemed. At the NFL scouting combine, he did not stand out: 6 feet tall, just 195 pounds, decent speed (4.46 seconds in the 40-yard dash), disappointing quickness, below-average explosiveness.
Draft analysts wondered where Diggs projected as an NFL receiver. He wasn’t especially big or fast, the prototype for an outside receiver. He wasn’t especially quick, either, according to his athletic testing, which would hurt in the slot. He was a good route runner — but not good enough, some experts said, to overcome those other limitations.
“I don’t even know why they wrote that in the first place,” said Smith, a former second-round pick who played eight NFL seasons. “I don’t know why anyone would have put that in their evaluation. He was always sudden [in his movement]. He always had great balance and body control. And that leads to guys having the ability to be a great route runner. And you add that to the fact that he has the ability to get off of press [coverage] and be explosive, those are all the things you need to be successful in the NFL. And he had all those tools.”
Former Terps wide receivers coach Lee Hull, who helped recruit Diggs to Maryland and coached him for two seasons, remembered Diggs arriving as a good route runner with exceptional burst, “as quick as he was fast.” But Diggs was determined to refine his form, Hull said. Every year, his technique got better.
“I think as he got older, he started to perfect the different mechanics to get open, instead of relying on just God-given ability,” said Hull, a former Indianapolis Colts wide receivers coach and currently the offensive coordinator at Howard University. “He made himself a great route runner, which you see today in the NFL.”
Other concerns seemed to chip away at Diggs’ draft stock. His injury history, in particular, was a focus of critics.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been; little about the nature of Diggs’ injuries suggested they would threaten his long-term health. Lacerated kidneys can range in severity, and Diggs’ required hospitalization after a painful bus ride back from Penn State. But he was back on the field in under two months, setting career highs against Stanford.
After his sophomore season, Diggs had come back from the broken foot looking like his old self. That was not a surprise, either: With rest and rehabilitation, fractured fibulas typically don’t develop complications.
Yet when the draft arrived, top prospects with potentially degenerative injuries did not have to wait long to be taken. Georgia running back Todd Gurley, coming off a torn ACL, was drafted No. 10 overall. Texas A&M offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, also recovering from an ACL injury, went No. 21 overall. Missouri outside linebacker Shane Ray was taken two picks later despite reports that a turf toe injury might require surgery.
Diggs’ injury history might’ve been more extensive. It also wasn’t overly concerning, Hull said. “Everybody comes back from those types of injuries 100%. And it’s not going to be lingering.”
“His injuries weren’t typical,” Smith said. “I mean, obviously, breaking a leg, that can happen anytime someone falls on you or you get hit wrong. But the reality of it was, I wouldn’t say he was a player that was injury-prone.”
He hasn’t been. Over six years in the NFL, Diggs has largely stayed off the injury report, never missing more than three games in a regular season. In 2020, he played in all 16 for Buffalo.
‘There’s no red flags’
Lacerated spleen or not, Diggs would’ve missed at least one game in 2014. Before a matchup at Penn State, Diggs contacted an official as he tried to separate the two teams amid an on-field scuffle. At the pregame coin toss, Diggs and two other Maryland captains refused to shake hands with the Nittany Lions.
The Terps were penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct, and the Big Ten Conference later announced Diggs had received a one-game suspension for violating the league’s sportsmanship policy.
The ban seemed to make every scouting report. In 2017, former Washington Football Team general manager Scot McCloughan hinted at the pervasiveness of character concerns that had surrounded Diggs, at least locally.
“There were some background things lingering that made us nervous,” McCloughan told Sports Illustrated. “Of course, I can’t go into them, but it sounded like, me meeting with the coaches, me meeting with him and the scouts, the best thing was for him to go maybe somewhere else from the area just because of the background stuff.”
Smith is “convinced” of his own conspiracy theory: that someone (or someones) must have said something mischaracterizing Diggs as a bad kid. “And that’s not the truth at all,” he said.
Good Counsel players and coaches remembered Diggs as someone who loved to practice as much as he loved to play. Andy Stefanelli, who served as the school’s freshman team coach and assisted the varsity team when Diggs was at the school, said Diggs “would go hard. When it was time to go, he went hard.”
“He would want to go against the best guy and make him look silly,” said Stefanelli, now Good Counsel’s head coach. “And, frankly, he did a lot of the time.”
When Diggs was still in the eighth grade, he started to train with the team. Scott, then a sophomore at Good Counsel, was struck by Diggs’ swagger and self-belief, how he would make “amazing” catches during workouts and be unafraid to talk a little smack afterward. The team’s upperclassmen laughed off the bravado, but “we knew he was special,” Scott said. He added: “He’s always been about his craft.”
Smith scoffed at the off-field concerns. “He doesn’t hang with people out there who get in trouble,” he said. Others described Diggs as humble and gracious, the young man his mother had raised him to be after his father’s 2008 death.
Stefanelli’s son Drew was a classmate of Diggs’ at Good Counsel, and when Diggs was younger, he would sometimes spend the night at the family’s home for sleepovers. Over Drew’s career at Maryland, Andy Stefanelli said he never heard anything negative about Diggs as a teammate. “He was, I think, well liked, very well respected.”
Hull remembered inviting Maryland’s wide receivers over to his house on Thursdays for a meal with his family. Diggs was the first one in and the last one to leave, Hull said. He would address Hull in a yes-sir, no-sir tone, play with his kids, take his shoes off once inside. Hull’s wife once remarked to him how nice a guy Diggs was.
“There’s nothing that would be a red flag about him,” Hull said. “He’s a great kid, worked hard, did well in school. In practice, he worked hard. There were no issues off the field, on the field. There’s no red flags that would say he should drop from a first-, second-round grade to a fifth round, whatsoever.”
At the College Football Playoff championship game in January 2017, Diggs’ mother, Stephanie, reportedly ran into Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. “You didn’t pick my son,” she said, according to Sports Illustrated, as if he needed the reminder. “They should fire your ass!”
Of course, everyone else missed, too — several times. In the fourth round of the 2015 draft, Washington and McCloughan had picked Duke’s Jamison Crowder, a productive NFL player who, like almost every other receiver in the class, would pale in comparison to the draft’s No. 146 pick.
Despite several seasons with a run-heavy Minnesota Vikings offense, Diggs ranks third among sixth-year receivers in career receiving yards (6,158), just behind the Dallas Cowboys’ Amari Cooper (6,211) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Mike Evans (6,209). Perriman, the Ravens’ No. 26 overall pick in 2015 and now a member of the New York Jets organization, has 1,652 receiving yards in his career and has played more than 11 games in a season just twice.
Diggs’ career hasn’t been free of controversy or “diva” labels — Minnesota fined him last season for unexpected absences from practices and team meetings — but he has otherwise been everything NFL executives and analysts doubted he’d become. In Buffalo, he is respected as a leader and feared as a receiver. On Wednesday, Diggs told local reporters that, as a rookie, he might’ve fixated more on a game against the Ravens. Now, he joked, “I’m older.” He’d left that in the past.
Baltimore Ravens Insider
“He’s determined to grow and get better every day,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “He’s got a great passion to compete and a great passion for the game of football. And he’s a great teammate. So I think it’s been a blessing for us, and it’s very clear that he has developed over the course of his career, which is a credit to him and the people that he has around him.”
AFC divisional round
Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4
Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Bills by 2½