Since being named head coach of the Buffalo Bills prior to the 2017 season, Sean McDermott has strived to make Buffalo a place where players can grow into the best version of themselves. And in his tenure with the team, perhaps no player has evolved more than Stefon Diggs.
After just one season with the team, Diggs – a player many believed to be a locker room cancer with the Minnesota Vikings – was named a team captain for the Bills’ 2021 season.
“It’s pretty quick,” Diggs said Tuesday of being named captain. “To me, it means a lot, just individually, I put in a lot of work. I try to be an example as far as how much work I put in. Being a captain, it’s more like a team thing. Everyone feels a certain way about you as far as how you carry yourself and how you lead. Even last year, with Dion Dawkins speaking on it, saying I could have been a captain last year – it meant a lot to me then, and it means a lot to me now.”
An alleged diva towards the end of his five-year stretch in Minnesota that saw him amass 365 receptions, 4,623 yards and 30 touchdowns in five seasons, Diggs has yet to show any signs of the prima donna label he donned upon arriving in Buffalo.
Diggs certainly wanted a fresh start away from the Vikings, and his discontent with his role in Minnesota’s offense was based on valid reasons.
And after only a handful of games in his new red, white and blue uniform, fans, players and coaches alike throughout the NFL opened their eyes to the type of spectacular, game-changing capabilities that Diggs possessed.
The former fifth-round draft pick was ostracized by the media in the months leading up to general manager Brandon Beane shipping two first-rounders to the Vikings for the Maryland product.
The 6-foot, 191-pounder was characterized as a cancer to his team; he was supposedly dividing the locker room and called every name you’d imagine in these seemingly annual superstar vs. franchise showdowns. The cards are always stacked against the player in these scenarios, too, as the loyalty of the fan lies with the team, while the player is often portrayed as the villain in the media.
“It was fair, to me,” Diggs said of his negative perception upon arriving in Buffalo. “Coming from my old team, up to me wanting to leave and wanting to go another place, I was a great teammate. It wasn’t until I wanted to do something else is when I became [perceived as] a bad teammate. So as far as it being good – you know – things are good until it’s not good.
“So for me, even then, just trying to play with a chip on my shoulder and lead my team the best way I know how. Just coming here, I had a fresh start. It’s fair for people to make their assumptions from the outside looking in. I just looked at it, like, when I get there I’ll show them who I am and we’ll go from there.”
The Bills clearly see what the Vikings couldn’t with Diggs. To Beane – and the rest of the Buffalo brass – Diggs was elite. A true superstar receiver. His route running, separation ability, and tenacity on the field would be the catalyst needed to propel Josh Allen into the MVP-caliber quarterback they knew he had the potential to become. He has that type of ability.
The Bills weren’t scared of how he’d affect the locker room, either. They’d done their homework on Diggs and saw a fierce competitor whose only desire was to win and have his abilities maximized. When those desires didn’t align with Minnesota’s plan for him, he naturally voiced his displeasures.
Buffalo knew they’d feature Diggs in a pass-heavy offense that’d keep him happy. All while surrounding him with a strong locker room of veteran leaders in place to help Diggs achieve the same level of growth off of the field as he would on it.
“A lot of people speak to mental health and things like that. That could’ve broken me, going to a new team,” Diggs explained. “Things couldn’t have gone well, things could have gone shaky, I couldn’t have had the success I had. So for that, I’m thankful. But at this point in my career, I’ve tried to earn the respect of my peers, earn the respect of my coaches.
“I feel like having that new start was God putting me in that position to be like, “okay, show them who you are.” And they embraced me. They didn’t judge me, they didn’t put me on this pedestal of, “oh, this is the kind of player he is, so let’s treat him this way.” I just came here and tried to earn the respect of my coaches and teammates and it’s went well.”
Diggs was the most targeted receiver in the NFL last season (166) and led the league in both receptions (127) and receiving yards (1,535), finding the endzone eight times. Despite that ridiculous production, 27-year old thinks he left a lot of yards on the field in 2020. But he also believes that he has a significant amount of growth to do as a leader.
The All-Pro spent much of the offseason reading books and Googling quotes on leadership, hoping to absorb and apply those principles to his own life. Diggs intends to take another step in his personal growth by being an even better teammate than he was a year ago, by understanding who his teammates are as people.
“You have different kinds of leaders,” said Diggs. “I was actually reading up on that. You have guys that are vocal and you have guys that lead by example. You have guys that do a little bit of everything. But to me, a true leader is knowing your teammates. You have guys that you can scream at, cuss them out – and they’ll react well. Then there are guys that don’t react well to that.
“A guy like Josh, who has a lot of energy, who’s playful. But in a game, being a quarterback, you might just have to have his back and say, “Okay, let’s all settle down. Let’s make the next play the best play.” Because I like to get riled up, too. Everybody has a lot of energy. But being able to know your teammates, and know what they need, that’s what leadership is to me.”
On the field, Diggs has already proven what he’s capable of. He’s run a million routes, scored tons of touchdowns, and racked up thousands of yards in his lifetime. But he’s never done any of those things as a team captain. On Sunday, Diggs will don the ‘C’ on his jersey as the Bills host the Pittsburgh Steelers at Highmark Stadium and push for a Super Bowl.
“We didn’t get as far as we wanted to last year, so this year, I’m focusing on what I can do. The things I can do better to be a better teammate, be a better player and just keep progressing.”