Two years ago, when Stefon Diggs arrived in Buffalo, the franchise record for receptions in a season was 100 by Eric Moulds. No other Bill had ever caught 100 balls in a season.
So, it’s pretty remarkable to hear people suggest that Diggs had “only” 103 catches a year ago. That’s how high the Bills’ dynamic wideout set the statistical bar when he caught 127 passes for 1,535 yards in his first year in town, obliterating Moulds’ team mark in both categories.
Diggs, who turns 29 in November, has 595 receptions in his seven seasons. Every player ahead of him on the active NFL list is older. There’s no telling where he could land on the career lists if he stays healthy. Jerry Rice had more than 1,000 receptions after turning 29. Larry Fitzgerald had more than half his catches after hitting that age.
But don’t talk to Stefon about setting statistical goals.
“I don’t set personal goals,” Diggs said Monday after the team’s second training camp practice at St. John Fisher. “I put a lot of work into my craft and you don’t know how it’s going to shake out. It all comes down to opportunity and being ready for your opportunity. If the plays come your way, make ‘em.
“Setting goals, I feel like if you fall underneath them, you didn’t do good enough, and I don’t live in that world. I live in the world where my preparation is going to carry me over. That’s where I get my confidence from. I don’t live in a world of setting goals. I’ve got some team goals, that’s for damn sure. But individual? I’ll be all right.”
The ultimate goal, of course, is winning a title. Diggs, like every Bill, is determined to achieve a goal that eluded them in excruciating fashion last January, when they were 13 seconds from a win at Kansas City, a home date in the AFC Championship Game and a possible berth in the Super Bowl.
Diggs emphasized that it was only the second day of training camp, that there’s a lot of work and preparation ahead in the Bills’ quest to justify their status as the league favorite heading into 2022. But it was also clear that their star receiver was emotionally geared up for the coming season.
At one point Monday, the Bills’ offense was struggling. Diggs began moving among his offensive teammates, yelling and urging them to bring another level of urgency to the proceedings. He told the younger guys to stop worrying about making mistakes and let their talent prevail.
It worked. The passing game began to hum the way it did in last year’s playoffs. On Josh Allen’s final throw of the day, Diggs beat Cam Lewis on a 20-yard route. Then he threw the ball into the crowd, did a little dance on the running track, and went over to high-five his offensive mates.
Maybe it’s only July, but Diggs made it clear that he’s an emotional leader on his team. He’s come a long way from the guy who pouted in Minnesota because the Vikings weren’t throwing the ball enough. He’s a star, smack in his prime, who knows he can make the players around him better.
“That’s part of being a leader,” he said. “How good are you making the guys around you? Can you get more out of a young guy? Can you get more out of an older guy, by pushing them?
“I feel like I’ve been that guy as far as a sense of urgency, one play at a time. I echo that to my quarterback, to everybody. I never want to have a low. I never want to ride that roller coaster. Throughout games and practices, you’re going to have that ebb and flow of good plays and bad plays.
“So, I try to stay even keel and keep the energy positive, breathe confidence in the guys to the left and right of me. When you make plays, get excited about it, be happy about it.”
Of course, Diggs also helps his teammates on the field by his mere presence. When you’ve led the NFL in catches and yards, as he did in 2020, you draw extra attention from opposing defenses. That creates one-on-one opportunities for others.
It’s hardly a coincidence that Gabriel Davis had a game for the ages in the playoff loss to the Chiefs, piling up 201 yards and a record four touchdowns while Diggs was held to three catches for 7 yards, or that Dawson Knox emerged as one of the most explosive tight ends in his third year in the league a season ago.
Knox became effusive when asked about Diggs’s capacity for making the people around him better.
“Oh, for sure,” Knox said. “If you can’t get excited to play with that dude, I don’t know who you can get excited to play with. He’s always whooping and hollering, chest-bumping, talking trash to the defense. It honestly makes me want to guard him sometime.
“He’s the man. Everyone loves him. We know that he gets intense in practice. We know that if he gets on you, it means he expects something out of you, which is a good thing. You want that fierce competitor to come out of him. It means he cares. We’ve had a couple of slow starts to practices, but we finally got the juice flowing. He does a good job of bringing that extra energy.”
Diggs brings that energy to his quarterback. Allen’s play was elevated from the moment Diggs came to Buffalo. They’ve become famously good friends who play video games together and exchange signature handshakes. They share a fierce competitive spirit, communicate like brothers, and refuse to accept a low standard.
“Going into the third year, it’s about dominating,” Diggs said. “That’s my mindset. I don’t want to lose. I never want to lose. Josh is super hard on himself as well. Good play, bad play, not riding that roller coaster. Your next play’s your best play. I believe that. That’s my quarterback. I’m rocking with him regardless. I just want to dominate. I don’t want to lose.”
Diggs joked about Allen becoming a huge celebrity, what he called a “big sh—.“ But he said his buddy hasn’t changed.
“He’s the same person,” Diggs said. “Loves to golf, loves to do what he loves to do. They say money doesn’t change you, it makes you more of the same person you already are. So, he’s that same person. He’s a good guy. He’s a goofball.”
When Diggs walked onto the practice field at St. John Fisher on Monday, one man hollered from the stands, “My wife loves you!” It’s not an uncommon sentiment among the community of Bills fans. Diggs has been embraced almost from the time he got to Buffalo.
He has matured a lot over the years. Diggs also shares the Bills Mafia’s sense of communal generosity, the urge to support the aspiring and less fortunate in society.
In June, he hosted his inaugural Diggs Day, a free football camp for kids in his hometown of Washington, D.C. On Sunday before the opening of camp, he partnered with D.C. vendors to host the first ‘Black on the Block,’ a free festival in Franklin Park featuring roughly 100 black businesses, along with music, art, gardens and other creative ventures.
“It was awesome,” Diggs said. “I’m trying to build off it. I had 70-plus Black vendors and entrepreneurs. In this day and age, everyone wants to work for themselves. I’m trying to give them an avenue. I believe in making a difference, putting money in their pockets.
“I think it’s part of my responsibilities,” he said of his civic endeavors. “Part of having a platform is using it effectively to make a difference. A lot of my initiatives are good to women and kids. As men, we have to figure it out and I’ll always try to be there for those who are less fortunate and might need an opportunity.”
Diggs says it’s all about opportunity, and preparation. He’s not worried about the change in offensive coordinator. The Bills have a lot of work to do. It’s only the start. He said talk to him after the 16th or 17th practice and he’ll have more of a gauge on how the ’22 team is progressing.
“We’re all trying to get on the same page now,” he said. “Every league year starts different. This is a brand-new year, a lot of new pieces. It feels like starting over again, and building.”
The offense could be even better this season. Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders are gone. But Davis is expected to emerge in his third year. Isaiah McKenzie and free agent signee Jamison Crowder are a strong tandem in the slot.
Rookie wideout Khalil Skahir has been opening eyes, and fellow first-year man James Cook should be a receiving weapon out of the backfield. O.J. Howard provides another top receiving option at tight end.
Diggs could improve and still not approach his historic season of two years ago. That’s fine with him, as long as the Bills win and the offense functions at a high level. Allen’s overall passing numbers fell off a bit from his record-setting 2020. Diggs believe the offense is ready to take it to another level.
“I would say we’ve got some experience,” he said. “Do we have the team? A hundred percent. Do we have the people? Yes. Do we have the coaches? Yes. But it’s on us, the preparation and doing it day by day. I don’t have individual goals, because I set a standard for myself that I’m supposed to do well. I expect to do well. I don’t expect to do anything but get open and catch the ball.
“That’s why I’m pushing the guy next to me. We’ve been places. Have we been where we wanted to go? No.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.