Vikings

OLSON: Diggs vs. Thielen -- Who is the Better Receiver, and What Makes Them So Good?

Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen may soon be the first Minnesota Vikings wide receiver duo since Cris Carter and Randy Moss to rack up 1,000 yards each in a single season.

Diggs and Thielen came into the league with giant chips on their shoulders: Diggs was a fifth-round draft pick. Thielen went undrafted. And since their rookie years, they have developed into perhaps the NFL’s best receiving duo. Together they are two of the NFL’s top-20 — if not top-10 — receivers in the league.

What makes them so good at what they do?  And which of the two is better?

Route Running

The most important job a receiver has is getting open, and both Diggs and Thielen are two of the best in the business at it. Thielen is a technician, with pristine footwork, play strength and craftiness, while Diggs has outrageous bend and body control that makes him among the NFL’s most explosive receivers at the top of his routes.

Release

Every route starts with the release off the line of scrimmage, and Thielen has one of the best in the NFL, combining an immediate first step with crafty jab steps and head fakes to create instant separation. On this play against the Falcons, Thielen only needs one quick outside jab step to turn the corner’s hips and get wide open on the slant for a first down:

The corner tries to get his hand on Thielen, but he slaps it away to push himself upfield for a 22-yard gain on third down that clinched a Vikings victory. Thielen creates instant separation like this regularly.

And it’s not just Thielen’s footwork that stands out on his release; it’s how he uses his upper body to release cleanly even against aggressive press coverage:

Watch how violently Thielen reacts to the corner’s jam: after absorbing the contact, Thielen counters with a perfectly-aimed punch right at the corner’s armpit. The push is so hard that, combined with the outside release, it turns the corner the wrong way, opening Thielen up for a 12-yard gain.

Diggs does not have that same upper-body violence as Thielen. In fact, Diggs’ breakout rookie season was shut down in large part due to defenses figuring out he could be smothered at the line with aggressive press coverage. But Diggs has learned to make up for what he lacks in physicality with footwork and agility:

Richard Sherman makes Diggs work hard on this route, doing a fantastic job to delay his release with his length and strength. But Diggs is able to fend Sherman off with a couple jab steps and an armbar of his own. That sets up Diggs to shake Sherman out of his shoes on the comeback, but it does take some additional space and time to work upfield here.

That said, while Diggs may not be the NFL’s strongest receiver against press, he more than makes up for it with fantastic footwork to create immediate separation at the line. Diggs has “phone booth quickness,” and can win immediately at the snap with his violent jab steps:

What really makes this route special is how easily Diggs changes direction to the corner. Cornerbacks are taught to watch a receiver’s hips — because while head and shoulder fakes can be deceiving, “hips don’t lie.”

But Diggs’ hips do lie. They are pointed 100 percent inside here before Diggs breaks outside. Diggs just has the unique ability to stop and redirect on a dime, and it earns him wide separation on this release for the score.

Overall, both receivers have fantastic releases, but Thielen’s upper-body play strength gives him a slight edge here.

Advantage: Thielen

Stem

The route stem includes all the little details that come after the release but before the receiver breaks in another direction. It is perhaps the most underrated aspect of route running. Good receivers win at the stem by not getting moved off their line, by using head fakes and arm bars to set up their break, by maintaining their desired leverage and by exploding upfield as fast as possible.

Thielen’s stems are teaching tape:

Thielen has a nice release and stutter-step break here, but what really makes this route work is his stem. The inside release allows Thielen to burst past Mills upfield. Mills tries to put a hand on Thielen to slow him down or disrupt and move him off his line, but Thielen pushes past like it’s nothing. The head fake and shimmy at the break are what leaves Mills in the dust, but it is that straight upfield burst that gives Thielen the two-way go that makes Mills bite on the stutter step.

Thielen has a fantastic understanding of leverage and how to take advantage of it, which combined with his physicality is really what makes him such an excellent slot receiver.

But perhaps nowhere do Thielen’s stems shine the most than against aggressive coverage:

Both cornerbacks here commit holding — and Lattimore commits pass interference on top of it — but Thielen makes both catches anyways because he never gets disrupted or moved off his line. Thielen is such a wrecking ball that teams have to break the rules to slow him down, and even that often does not work.

Diggs does not quite match up with Thielen’s physicality, but he has even better burst and is a technician with his hands:

Diggs wins this fade route by bursting past the corner in the foot race to the end zone, and by preempting Witherspoon’s attempts to slow Diggs down by intercepting the defender’s arm with his own armbar — ensuring that there is a window just big enough for Kirk Cousins to squeeze in this touchdown pass.

Diggs, like Thielen, has a particularly good understanding of leverage, and also like Thielen, can fight through contact and even pass interference to make tough contested catches:

Diggs stems this route inside, then breaks outside (turning Randall’s hips), then moves again back inside (flipping Randall’s hips again), making it impossible for Randall to keep pace. Randall has to resort to hugging Diggs mid-route, then pulling his arm in the end zone. But it makes no difference — Diggs has the play strength to move through the contact, the technique to swipe away Randall’s arm and the strong hands to secure the touchdown anyway.

But even with all that, Thielen’s unmovable, violent and meticulous stems are just on another level.

Advantage: Thielen

Break

Diggs might just have the best break of any receiver in the NFL. The ease with which he creates separation is just jaw-dropping:

No one else moves like this. Diggs sets up this route with an inside release — giving him a two-way go — and strong upfield stem, but it’s Diggs’ unique ability to stop and redirect on a dime that sends Darby flying. These two images are less than a half-second apart. Within that split-second, Diggs gets his entire body to move full speed in the other direction.

And it is not just young corners like Darby; Diggs has been posterizing All-Pro corners since his first NFL game:

Diggs burns Aqib Talib with a sudden out route, Darius Slay by stopping on a dime with a comeback, gets Marcus Peters turned around by stemming inside then using the rotation of his arms to break out sharply, separates from Xavier Rhodes by catching and swatting his hands at the top of his route and roasts Josh Norman by stemming inside, then getting him to swing his hips around and keep him from catching up on the out-and-up.

And those are just the All-Pros. Here is Diggs cutting so hard that it makes Tre White fall over. Here is Diggs turning Tramon Williams around so bad he just collapses midfield:

No, Williams does not get tripped here by Thielen or Diggs. Diggs just uses leverage so well — releasing outside, then breaking inside, then again back out — that Williams actually trips over his own ankles to give up the wide-open touchdown.

Thielen is not able to bend, twist or stop in the same ways that Diggs does. But Thielen is a technician at the break of his routes and can create plenty of separation on his own:

Thielen gets the slot corner to bite hard on the inside jab step with a strong head-and-shoulder fake, baiting the corner into thinking this is a quick slant. Once the corner bites, Thielen wastes no time burning past him upfield for the long completion.

Maybe Thielen’s best route is his post-out — or “blaze out” — as he creates a huge amount of separation here:

Thielen stems his route aggressively straight at the cover-3 corner, then forces the corner to crash down once Thielen breaks inside for the post. As soon as the corner bites, Thielen redirects nearly 180 degrees towards the sideline using tight, short strides and leaving a giant window for Cousins to hit.

Thielen is a great route-runner, but perhaps no other receiver in the NFL posterizes corners quite like Diggs does.

Advantage: Diggs

Overall, who you prefer as a route runner comes down to preference. Thielen’s strong release, stem and physicality give him versatility; he beats defenses on the outside or in the slot, on the line or off it. Diggs’ outrageous change of direction and stopping speed create separation unlike maybe anyone else in the NFL. Personally, I think Diggs is slightly superior as a route runner, but Thielen is not far behind at all.

Hands

Catching the ball is the most fundamental job a receiver has. The best receivers rarely ever drop the ball, and elite receivers win jump balls like they were nothing.

Contested Catches

Last year, Diggs was the NFL’s No. 1 contested-catch receiver, reeling in a whopping 64 percent of his contested catches. Diggs may not have the play strength or one-handed highlight-reel grabs of someone like Odell Beckham or DeAndre Hopkins, but he more than makes up for it with strong hands and a preposterous level of body control.

Take the Minneapolis Miracle:

Maybe the most miraculous part of the play is how Diggs contorts his body in the air, first right back towards the ball, then pirouetting back left to the end zone without falling and barely even slowing down. I am not sure any other receiver can make this play.

And Diggs makes these kinds of plays all. the. time:

Diggs might be just a hair over six feet, but he plays like he thinks he’s Dikembe Mutombo, with a catch radius the size of the State Fair, with the athletic ability to make plays in midair, with a toughness to withstand any hit and with a death grip on the ball to bring in every catch.

As for Thielen, well, you just can’t leave him this open:

Thielen makes this catch in mid-air leaping backward towards the ball behind the defender’s helmet. P.J. Williams is in perfect coverage. It does not make a difference.

Thielen ranked sixth in the NFL in contested catch percentage last year, winning on 52 percent of jump balls, so Thielen makes these kinds of grabs every other game:

Both the cornerback and the safety are in a great position here to disrupt the pass, but Thielen brings it in despite a very strong contest from Jaire Alexander. Next Gen Stats had this as one of the most improbable catches of the season, outdone by only a handful of plays — including, at the top, another Thielen reception (of course).

Both Diggs and Thielen are elite at the catch point with huge catch radii, strong hands and a contortionist’s body control. Diggs might have better contested catch numbers, but the tape suggests it is close enough that deciding between the two is splitting hairs.

Advantage: Push.

Focus drops

Every receiver drops the ball every once in a while.

Every receiver except Diggs, that is, who this year made the most catches without a drop in a single season that Pro Football Focus has ever recorded. Yes, apparently everything does stick to his hands, no matter how poorly the ball is placed:

And no matter how far Diggs has to leap for the ball:

Diggs still has not officially recorded a drop this season. His 3.55 percent career drop rate is the second-best of any receiver in the NFL, right behind Mike Thomas’ absurd 3.13 percent and narrowly edging out Larry Fitzgerald (3.78 percent).

Thielen, on the other hand, does occasionally drop the ball, though his 4.83 percent career drop rate is still well above average among wide receivers.

Advantage: Diggs

Deep Threat

Both Diggs and Thielen ran 4.45-second 40-yard-dashes, so while neither take the top off defenses quite like Tyreek Hill, they are far more of a threat to get past the defense than receivers like Hopkins or Mike Thomas.

Diggs particularly stands out as a deep threat because more than just being a burner, he is outstanding at tracking and adjusting to the ball, and can create even more separation with his footwork and with double moves:

There are times Diggs does not adjust to the ball until the very split-second before it arrives. Those late adjustments make some of Diggs’ deep completions absolutely unguardable:

There is nothing anyone can do to stop Diggs on these plays. Diggs is just too good at getting downfield, tracking the ball and waiting until the very last second to put his hands up.

Not to be outdone by Diggs, however, Thielen is fantastic at separating early in his route and winning downfield with speed, great ball awareness and savvy hands fighting:

Notice in particular how Thielen uses his arms and hands to push past defenders legally while countering any attempts by the defenders to slow Thielen down or pull his arms away from the catch. That savviness is such a huge part of what makes Thielen so dangerous — he completely neutralizes defenders by keeping their hands off him so that he is open even when he isn’t open.

One of Thielen’s greatest strengths is how he adjusts to the ball downfield in midair, which combined with his large frame and body control make for some of his most spectacular highlights:

Twirling back towards the ball while running downfield and high pointing to make the grab, Thielen almost looks like a figure skater or ballerina. But what makes him so deadly as a receiver is he combines that grace and control with a violence and explosiveness that make him nearly impossible to keep up with.

Diggs and Thielen both have above-average deep speed, spectacular body control and great ball awareness, but Diggs is perhaps the slightly more dangerous deep threat due to how quickly he can separate downfield with his routes and how late he can break towards the ball in the air.

Advantage: Diggs

Yards after Catch

The last core aspect of what makes a good receiver is what they do once they have the ball in their hands, and here, both Diggs and Thielen are above average.

Diggs, in particular, is underappreciated for how dangerous he is after the catch. He has a punt returner’s vision for running lanes, the ability to stop or redirect instantly to make defenders look silly and a running back’s balance and elusiveness to make would-be tacklers blow right past him:

Diggs currently has the fifth-most forced missed tackles among wide receivers, behind only Beckham, D.J. Moore, Mike Thomas and a three-way tie among Golden Tate, Willie Snead and Antonio Brown. Diggs averages 4.6 yards after the catch per reception in his career, a number that is well above average and on par with Antonio Brown, Doug Baldwin, Keenan Allen or prime Fitzgerald.

Thielen might not have as many avoided tackles as Diggs, and while he averages slightly less YAC than Diggs (4.2 yards per reception), he does have great athleticism, vision and breakaway speed:

Thielen is particularly underrated as an athlete: he has above average size, length, straight-line speed and quickness as a receiver, and while he is often forced to make catches in traffic as a slot receiver, when given the opportunity he will burn defenses all the way to the end zone.

Overall Diggs is slightly better with the ball in his hands, thanks to his agility and elusiveness, but don’t underestimate how good Thielen is after the catch as well.

Advantage: Diggs

So, Who Is Better?

Hopefully this article has done a good enough job showcasing what each receiver excels at — and has selected a representative sample of plays — that readers can fairly answer that question on their own.

For my druthers, while it is splitting hairs to choose the more talented receiver, overall I would say Diggs has the slight edge due to the unique way he moves, breaks and bends in his routes and at the catch point. Others might prefer Thielen for his versatility, prototypical size and play strength and talent in the first half of his routes.

Either way, Vikings fans are spoiled rotten to get the opportunity to watch the NFL’s best receiving duo every week, and Diggs and Thielen are proving themselves worthy successors as the best Vikings’ receiving duo since Carter and Moss.


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