How the Stefon Diggs Trade Shakes up the AFC Race for Texans, Bills, Chiefs

By Scott Kacsmar

The bulk of free agency may be over for NFL teams, but big moves are still going down in the first week of April. On Wednesday, the Buffalo Bills pulled off a shocker when they sent disgruntled wide receiver Stefon Diggs to the Houston Texans for a second-round pick in the 2025 draft. Buffalo also had to send Houston a sixth-round pick in 2024 and a fifth-round pick in 2025, but no one cares about that right now in this revamped AFC race.

This move can potentially shake up the dynamics of the AFC as the Texans look to surge ahead to a Super Bowl in the second year for quarterback C.J. Stroud, the Bills try to stay afloat without their top receivers, and everyone is still chasing the Kansas City Chiefs from a historic three-peat of Super Bowls.

But Houston’s strong offseason continues as the Texans are now up to +1500 odds to win Super Bowl LIX at FanDuel, up from +2500 when the offseason began. Buffalo is still ahead of Houston at +1300, trailing the Ravens (+900) and Chiefs (+650) among AFC favorites for the Super Bowl.

In theory, a wide receiver, especially one who is going on 31 years old, should never be the final piece to a championship season. But the makeup of these teams may just see this trade work out as the catalyst that allows the Texans to ascend past the Bills and Ravens in the AFC as the top threat to dethrone the Chiefs.

Let’s look at the possible impact of this Diggs trade from a variety of angles, including the fit in Houston, if Diggs is declining, Stroud’s MVP chances, Buffalo’s new plan at wide receiver, and if the Chiefs should be worried.

Cheers for Houston’s Aggressive Moves

Whether this trade works or not for Houston, you have to appreciate the strategy and logic behind it. Some already have gone to great lengths in doing so:

It would be very difficult to replicate everything Houston has done since 2022 ended to get to this point, but the overall strategy has been doable since 2011 when the NFL introduced a new rookie wage scale in the new collective bargaining agreement.

If you have a young stud at quarterback like C.J. Stroud, the Offensive Rookie of the Year, you get a cost-effective contract for five seasons when you pick up their fifth-year option if they were a first-round pick. Even if you extend him to a second contract before that time is up, you can still keep his cap number low for the early portion of his career, allowing you to spend more cap space on other parts of the team like defense, receivers, and offensive linemen.

When you have the quarterback position solved, you can afford to give up high draft picks for proven talent like Diggs.

Go all out when the quarterback is young, and you don’t have them under a contract that is going to pay them over $55 million per season as that’s the going rate for a top-flight franchise quarterback. This is how you can afford a pass-rusher like Danielle Hunter, who signed in Houston for $49 million over the next two seasons.

The Texans are loading up now as they should with Stroud making peanuts relative to other quarterbacks. Stroud’s cap hit is just $8.2 million this year. Compare that to Patrick Mahomes ($37.0M), Josh Allen ($30.4M), and Lamar Jackson ($32.4M) and you can see the difference in cap flexibility.

Diggs has a cap hit of $19 million this season. Much easier to take that on when your quarterback is less than half of that.

Diggs: Great Fit for Houston?

By bringing in Diggs, the Texans are getting a very reliable possession receiver who can dominate on short and intermediate routes with the occasional deep ball that should look even better with the way Houston dials up play-action passes. While Diggs only had 23 targets on play-action passes last year, he averaged 14.1 yards per target on them.

Diggs has caught 68.8% of his targets in his career and has six straight 1,000-yard seasons. He joins an offense that made some history last year as the 2023 Texans were the first offense in NFL history to have three receivers with multiple games of 140 receiving yards in the same season.

In case you forgot, the Texans are getting slot receiver Tank Dell back, who looked great before a season-ending injury cut his rookie season short. He’ll be there, and Nico Collins exploded last season with 1,297 yards and looked like a legitimate No. 1 receiver. You throw Diggs in this offense, and he can basically be the Brandon Aiyuk if we are comparing the San Francisco system where offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik comes from as a Kyle Shanahan disciple.

The Texans were already getting solid play from Noah Brown, who is coming back, last year. He had back-to-back games with 153 and 172 yards against the Buccaneers and Bengals. Now you can swap him out for Diggs, and this is probably the new best-receiving trio in the NFL with Collins, Diggs, and Dell.

When Diggs was in Buffalo, he had to do a lot more as Gabe Davis had a limited route tree. In Houston, Diggs has a true equal in Collins, and a much better slot in Dell. We haven’t even mentioned Dalton Schultz, a solid tight end.

Diggs in Houston looks like a great fit.

Is Diggs Declining?

We can get into the reasons why Buffalo moved Diggs now to a contender in the same conference. But one truth is that wide receivers are generally better in their 20s than they are in their 30s. Diggs will be 31 in November, and he already had one of the weirdest splits last (regular) season in Buffalo:

  • First 9 games: 7.8 receptions per game, 92.7 yards per game, 0.8 touchdowns per game, 8.60 yards per target.
  • Last 8 games: 4.6 receptions per game, 43.6 yards per game, 0.1 touchdowns per game, 5.54 yards per target.

Was Diggs already on the decline? This slump did coincide almost perfectly with the change at offensive coordinator when the Bills replaced Ken Dorsey with Joe Brady after the Denver loss. That means the entire Brady run plus one game against Denver is the 8-game split to end the season. Diggs was also underwhelmed in the two playoff games with a total of 10 catches for 73 yards and no touchdowns (4.29 yards per target).

No matter what it was, drop-offs of this magnitude are rare. Since 2001, a receiver has had at least 800 receiving yards in his team’s first 9 games a total of 104 times, including Diggs (834) last year. But Diggs’ average of 43.6 receiving yards per game the rest of the season is the third-lowest average in those 104 seasons where the receiver played in multiple games in the second half of the season. There was an A.J. Green season where he played in one more game before getting injured, and Cooper Kupp missed the final 8 games in 2022.

The only weaker finishes were Marques Colston (33.8 yards per game for the 2006 Saints) and Terrell Owens (29.8 yards per game for the 2010 Bengals). In Owens’ case, he just turned 37 and was injured in Week 15 before missing the final two games entirely. In Colston’s case, he was a rookie who left the 10th game of the season injured, missed the next two games, and didn’t catch a pass in the season finale where the Saints rested starters early for the playoffs.

So, you could argue Diggs had the weakest finish to a season after a strong start with 800-plus yards of any player since 2001. Was he playing injured? Did Brady not like him on the offense? Did he aggravate Josh Allen behind the scenes in November?

He’s not at the end or beginning of his career, so it probably won’t mean anything come 2024. But there is at least some evidence that Diggs did not leave Buffalo on a high note. We’ll see if a new team and setting energizes him.

The Texans are betting it will.

Is C.J. Stroud the MVP Favorite?

Things are shaping up nicely for a huge second season for C.J. Stroud, who already won Offensive Rookie of the Year to begin his career. He’s getting Diggs, he now has Joe Mixon at running back, he’s getting Tank Dell back, and offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik stayed instead of taking off to be a head coach elsewhere. He also might have a stronger defense with DeMeco Ryans heading into his second season as coach and having Will Anderson Jr. to learn from pass-rushing veteran Danielle Hunter.

We have seen Patrick Mahomes (2018) and Lamar Jackson (2019) recently win MVP in their second season in the league. Technically, Dan Marino (1984) and Kurt Warner (1999) also did that before. Could Stroud be the next young MVP? His +1000 MVP odds are tied with Joe Burrow at FanDuel for the third-highest odds behind Mahomes (+650) and Allen (+800).

If you watched Stroud last year, you know there is room for improvement as he left plays on the field that he can get better at with experience and reviewing his rookie season. We already said this has the potential to be the best-receiving trio in the NFL, and if you throw in the depth with Noah Brown and Schutlz at tight end, it could be the best-receiving corps in the NFL period.

That depth of weaponry is generally going to be conducive to a quarterback having an MVP season. You can ask anyone from Mahomes (2018) to Tom Brady (2007) to Warner (1999, 2001) to Peyton Manning (2004, 2013), Joe Montana (1989), and Aaron Rodgers (2011) about that.

If I were placing an MVP bet today, Stroud at +1000 is my choice. He has the skill and help around him to pull this off.

Where Does Buffalo Go from Here?

When Josh Allen had his breakout season in 2020, it led to this 4-year reign in the AFC East for Buffalo. But that season may not have been possible without the addition of Stefon Diggs from Minnesota. He was a very reliable target for Allen, who looked like a way better quarterback that year.

Now, Diggs is gone. The Bills also let inconsistent deep threat Gabe Davis go to Jacksonville, so they are going to have to replace their top wide receivers. You can’t go into a season with Khalil Shakir, Justin Shorter, Mack Hollins, and Curtis Samuel. They signed Samuel from Washington for the slot, though Shakir could have handled that role well.

Dalton Kincaid had a good rookie year at tight end and should take on a bigger role in 2024. But it remains to be seen if he has that special gear to be a team’s No. 1 receiving target like Tony Gonzalez, Rob Gronkowski, or Travis Kelce. That’s not a sure thing with Kincaid.

Fortunately, the 2024 draft should be an excellent one for wide receivers. We already looked at how there could be 12 wide receivers drafted in the first two rounds. The Bills hold the No. 28 pick, and it would not be surprising to see them take LSU’s Brian Thomas Jr. He is big (6’3”) and still incredibly fast, so that could be a great replacement for Davis and even take some of Diggs’ responsibilities if all things go well.

The Bills could get Thomas, but they probably shouldn’t stop there. Buffalo also has picks No. 60, 128, and 133 in the draft. They should take two wideouts in this deep class as Allen cannot be expected to do this alone. Not when the other contenders are loading up.

The other good news is Allen should be developed enough in his career to where Diggs is not the crutch he once was. They already showed they could win games without Diggs doing much in the second half of last season. Diggs also was not above pouting on the sideline and showing up his quarterback when he didn’t get enough targets. So, Allen might welcome the challenge to operate without him and work on his chemistry with Kincaid, Shakir, and any rookies they add.

The sky isn’t falling on Buffalo, which is why the odds for the Bills to win the Super Bowl and Allen to win MVP virtually haven’t moved after this trade. It’s not like Diggs helped the Bills to any Super Bowls. He helped Allen break out in 2020, but they are beyond that point now and looking for a different path forward.

In fact, you know Buffalo is not that sad to get rid of Diggs when it is costing the team $31 million in dead cap money in 2024 to do this trade before June 1.

Is It Texans vs. Chiefs in the AFC Now?

There was the thought this past season that if Buffalo and Baltimore couldn’t beat the Chiefs with home-field advantage in the playoffs after Kansas City led the league in dropped passes and didn’t look as sharp, then it’s just never going to happen for those teams.

So, who is the next contender to stop this Kansas City dynasty? Maybe it’s the Texans, who will play at Arrowhead this season after the teams did not meet in Stroud’s rookie season. Stroud vs. Mahomes is going to be must-see TV, but let’s hope the NFL does not make it to the Week 1 game on opening night as this deserves to be a special AFC matchup in prime time later in the year.

We mentioned Mahomes won MVP in his second season in the league, but he also won a Super Bowl in his second full season as a starter in 2019 when the Chiefs gave him a better defense. That is the main goal Stroud will have this year, and he should have a beefed-up offense and defense to help this Houston team ascend to a higher tier after finishing 10-7 last year.

The Chiefs are likely to regress a little on defense, a unit that lost corner L’Jarius Sneed (Titans), and the Texans should get better on that side of the ball with Hunter, closing the gap some between these defenses.

Both offenses have room for improvement after ranking just out of the top 10 in several key categories last season. But the Texans are going to have the better-receiving corps for Stroud to work with, and it is natural to think he can still grow a lot at quarterback in his second season. The Chiefs added Marquise Brown and still have the draft to get another receiver, but we also have to see if any discipline comes to Rashee Rice after his involvement in a car crash over the weekend.

But before we crown a new champion based on this trade, let’s not forget that wide receivers rarely ever get a team over the finishing line. For that matter, the Chiefs traded Tyreek Hill to Miami in 2022 and won back-to-back championships without him.

The only recent player to go to a new team, become their leading receiver (yards), and win a Super Bowl in their first season together was tight end Shannon Sharpe on the 2000 Ravens, a team led by a historic defense. The only wide receiver to do it was Roy Jefferson on the 1970 Colts.

But that’s just trivia. Diggs doesn’t have to lead the team in receiving this year, and they don’t necessarily have to win it all in 2024. They just have to get closer than they did a year ago. Diggs doesn’t even have to do as much as he did in 2020 when he joined the Bills and had to be a transformative piece in the offense to get Josh Allen to play much better, which he did. Stroud already played very well last year. This is about getting better.

We have seen some great receivers instantly elevate teams, though it still resulted in a season that ended short of the ultimate goal:

  • Terrell Owens made the 2004 Eagles better than ever under Andy Reid, but they still lost the Super Bowl to the Patriots.
  • Randy Moss helped another offense set records with the 2007 Patriots, but they only scored 14 points in their Super Bowl loss to the Giants.
  • Diggs helped the Bills to the AFC Championship Game right away in 2020, but they never got back to that round in the next three seasons.
  • A.J. Brown helped the 2022 Eagles to the Super Bowl where they lost to the Chiefs.

That looks like a short list, but there aren’t many notable cases of a top receiver changing teams, dominating, and the team winning big right away. In fact, one of the best examples of a new receiver helping a team win the Super Bowl right away was when Alshon Jeffery joined the 2017 Eagles and had 789 yards and 9 touchdowns. Even JuJu Smith-Schuster had 933 yards as Kansas City’s de-facto No. 1 wide receiver in 2022, his only year with the team when expectations weren’t even high for him.

The lesson learned is we always tend to overrate the importance of the wide receiver position, especially when it comes to one changing teams. But if the Texans pull this off in 2024, we’ll at least know all the moves that led to their quick success. Hiring DeMeco Ryans, pairing him with a Shanahan assistant at offensive coordinator, landing C.J. Stroud in the draft, aggressively trading up for Will Anderson Jr., signing Danielle Hunter in free agency, and trading for Diggs from Buffalo in April. A loaded offense and a pass rush.

Is that enough to take down the Chiefs or at least kick off the next great NFL rivalry? We’ll see, but Wednesday’s big trade should make things much more interesting this season.

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