Can the owner of the preseason Trevon Diggs Defensive Player of the Year ticket please come to the front desk?
I’m not kidding. If you have that ticket, send me a screenshot. The second-year corner, who was far from a rookie sensation, was posted at odds longer than +15000 for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Six weeks through the season, he’s hot on Myles Garrett’s heels at +450. That’s the bet of a lifetime.
Diggs is in that conversation because his early-season production has been nearly unprecedented. He has seven interceptions in six games, and has recorded at least one pick in each contest. Only Barry Wilburn, Brian Russell, and ex-Cowboys coach Tom Landry have ever started the season with an interception in each of their first six games; no player has done it for seven. If he records an interception against the Vikings in Week 8 (the Cowboys have a bye in Week 7), Diggs will stand alone in the record books. He also shares the record for most interceptions (seven) through six games in the Super Bowl era with Rod Woodson—good company to share.
Such astounding production often comes out of nowhere, and that’s especially true for the former second-round pick. Diggs didn’t snag an interception until Week 8 of his rookie season, in which he picked off interception machine Carson Wentz—twice. He ended the year with three picks, all against the Eagles, and largely an up-and-down report card from the defensive coaching staff. Over the offseason the Cowboys switched defensive coordinators and drafted two day-two cornerbacks, placing Diggs as a presumptive but uncertain starter entering training camp.
Then, the explosion came.
With such jaw-dropping production in such a short period of time, the important questions are clear: How is Diggs doing this? And is this sustainable? I think I have answers for both.
First, if we cut up Diggs’s interceptions, we see something that should be fairly obvious from the jump: It takes a lot of talent and a lot of luck to grab seven interceptions in six games. For example, this interception against the Panthers on third-and-short is an example of situational awareness, aggressiveness, and ball skills. It’s a high-quality play.
Similar traits—quick recognition, explosive closing speed—were visible on this interception against the Eagles, but it likely isn’t an interception if Philly wideout DeVonta Smith doesn’t fall down.
In the same vein, Diggs likely surrenders a short completion on this throw to Kendrick Bourne if Mac Jones delivers an accurate pass. And a strong tackle to force a third-and-long is objectively a good play, so a catch here wouldn’t have been a knock against Diggs. He just gets lucky with an inaccurate pass and a fortunate bounce, which turns into another interception on his stat sheet.
We can see all of this coalesce in his first interception of the season: a dropped screen pass to Leonard Fournette. Diggs shows great recognition and is in position to make a good tackle and blow up the play, but ultimately the interception is the result of a lucky bounce.
So four of his seven picks are at least partially the result of luck. It’s important to see them laid out one after the other, because they remind us that interceptions are most often born of some combination of skill and chance. You can make a good play, get a little lucky, and all of a sudden generate the best play any defender can generate: a turnover.
With this framework in mind, we can watch Diggs’s other three interceptions and better understand just how he’s playing this year—and understand how unlikely it is that this trend of unreal ball production will continue.
Here’s a pick that takes a lot of skill—so much skill, in fact, that on the broadcast call, Tony Romo said, “You don’t intercept these passes!”
He’s right. This is an over route—a route thrown, by Sports Info Solutions’ charting, 255 times in the 2020 season. It was intercepted only twice.
It’s an impossible route to intercept in man coverage, because the corner is almost always trailing the receiver. Quarterbacks can lead the receiver with ball placement, putting the pass beyond the reach of the defensive back. If the defender mugs up the receiver at the line of scrimmage, then the quarterback won’t throw this ball in the first place.
Diggs wants to get hands on Keenan Allen at the line of scrimmage and dominate the rep there, but Allen is one of the league’s best craftsmen, and generates a ton of space on the line. If you pause the clip at the point when Allen begins to break across the field, you’d call this a clear win for the receiver.
But Diggs’s explosiveness makes up for his loss at the line, and even allows him to bait a throw from Justin Herbert that the young quarterback would take back if he could. Given the velocity with which Herbert throws the football, and the fact that this is an accurate pass on Allen’s body, it is shocking—to Herbert, to Romo, and to us—that Diggs was not only able to undercut the route and get into a position to affect the pass, but that he had the awareness, body control, and hands to make the catch.
Diggs’s ball skills are legit, and should help him convert pass breakups to interceptions at a solid rate. Remember, some very talented cornerbacks excel at discouraging targets with tight coverage and disrupt passes with length and strength, but simply do not have the ball skills to reel in interceptions. Players like Tampa Bay corner Carlton Davis (46 career pass break-ups, six career interceptions) and Diggs’s predecessor in Dallas, Miami corner Byron Jones (52 career PBUs, four career INTs) fit this mold. Both are roughly the same size as Diggs, and excel in similar alignments: man coverage, deep third zones, pressed on the line of scrimmage—and both are good athletes to boot. But neither first committed to Alabama as a wide receiver, the way Diggs did. As Diggs shared this past week, he cried when Alabama head coach Nick Saban switched him from wide receiver to cornerback—but now, that switch has positioned him as one of the best young ball hawks in the league.
We can see Diggs’s wide receiver skills on this interception against the Giants. Diggs is again in a position in which he’s surrendered separation, but he is flying stride for stride with receiver CJ Board—and his eyes are glued to the football, on a fluttering trajectory from quarterback Mike Glennon, who is filling in for an injured Daniel Jones.
A lot of cornerbacks don’t have their eyes on the ball in this context, and fewer still are able to maintain speed while tracking the ball—that’s inherently a wide receiver skill. To put the cherry on top, Diggs initially jockeys for position with Board, tracking the ball better and boxing him out from the catch point before elevating and making a catch at extension. Many corners try to catch the ball like they’re returning a punt—Diggs is comfortable using his hands, length, and tracking to attack the ball in the air, like a real wideout.
Diggs has alluded to the help his wide receiver background affords him in generating big plays on this pick against the Panthers. This is a total nonsense play. Diggs is responsible for playing the deep half in what looks like a Tampa 2 coverage shell. He simply decides not to do that, instead lurking in the middle of the field for a crossing route coming from the other side of the formation. This is, at best, an educated guess—and Diggs guesses right.
Cowboys CB Trevon Diggs was assigned a deep half in Cover 2 on a third-and-5 pass Sunday. He trusted his instincts, loitered underneath and intercepted Panthers QB Sam Darnold instead. Diggs: "I knew he was trying to hit that crosser.” https://t.co/FxuJnp67mr https://t.co/Ov99qDtqCI pic.twitter.com/lICL54NiYz— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) October 8, 2021
You would never teach a cornerback to do this—but as Diggs said after the game, “They’ve got to run their route to this depth, so I try to study that and just try to think, ‘What would the offensive coordinator be thinking?’” While Diggs’s receiver background may be far more evident on a play like that interception against the Giants, it matters as much if not more here. Having played both sides of the ball, Diggs understands how zone coverage tries to adjust to route distributions, and how route distributions try to manipulate the spaces in zone coverage. He knows the feints and the counterfeints, the gives and the takes. So on this play—a third-and-5, with the isolated receiver in a split tight to the formation—expecting a crossing route to develop behind the sticks and the first level of the zone defense makes sense. But, man, it takes some guts to forgo the free-running Terrace Marshall Jr. and lurk for that crosser—but in this case, Diggs was rewarded.
Diggs is delivering for the Cowboys, who trusted him as their starting outside corner. His skills are baked into all of his record-setting interceptions—even the ones with the friendly bounces. But plays like this one are neither replicable nor sustainable. They are all-or-nothing propositions that, without a Randy Gregory pressure, or against a smarter quarterback, will not fall Diggs’s way as freely. Diggs’s ball production, like the ball production of most high-interception cornerbacks (think Asante Samuel Sr. or Marcus Peters), is predicated on aggressiveness—and aggressiveness can get you burned.
We can take, as an example, one of the passes Diggs surrendered against New York Giants rookie wideout Kadarius Toney. Much like the route he played against Keenan Allen, Diggs loses at the line of scrimmage, but settles into the trail and looks to undercut the crossing route. He’s bitten off more than he can chew against a player like Toney, who has top-shelf stop-start ability. Instead of running the over route, Toney breaks off and works toward the sideline, and Diggs surrenders an explosive pass. This is the first play of the third quarter. It was called specifically to take advantage of Diggs’s aggressiveness.
Allen also got his revenge on Diggs, this time by attacking him in off coverage. For all of his explosiveness, Diggs doesn’t have elite change-of-direction, so he swivels his hips early, worried that Allen is going to open up downfield. This leaves him unable to explode when Allen works across the field, surrendering a key explosive play late in a close game.
And of course, a major way to attack a player who likes to jump routes is with the double move. Right after the go-ahead pick-six, Diggs surrendered a 75-yard touchdown to Kendrick Bourne that put the Patriots back on top, as he closed down on an out-breaking route that looked just like his DeVonta Smith interception—that is, until Bourne turned on the jets upfield.
The reality of this play, however, is that Diggs was in a good position to recover, using his impressive long speed and ball tracking to get to the football. He’s stride-for-stride with Bourne, and while he’s playing with outside instead of inside leverage, he’s in a position to make a play on this ball. He slows up and undercuts the route, expecting deep safety Damontae Kazee to do his job, locate the football, and collide with the receiver. Kazee whiffs, and Diggs isn’t in a position to make the tackle.
While Diggs isn’t fully at fault on this play, it is not surprising that Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels gave him a double move and dared him to cover it. The Cowboys should have won this rep, but Diggs’s aggressiveness will invite offenses to challenge him with deception. Next time, a faster receiver than Bourne and a stronger-armed QB than Jones could make this play look far, far worse for Diggs.
Diggs’s aggressive playing style, when paired with his top-tier explosiveness and ball skills, will continue to create pass breakups and interceptions for him. His shaky press technique and lack of elite change-of-direction will continue to surrender completions. Cornerback is a ludicrously difficult position to play—the second-toughest on the field behind quarterback, in my estimation—and playing the position demands risks, exchanges, and guesses. Diggs and the Cowboys may have gotten some of the best turnover luck so far this season, but it isn’t all luck. It’s technical skill, yes; and physical ability, yes; but also a conscious choice to live in a feast-or-famine playing style. So far this season, we’ve seen a lot of feast.
Famine is coming. It may not be enough to knock Diggs out of the Defensive Player of the Year conversation, but Diggs will surrender more receptions and targets—especially deep—than he has so far. That’s basically inevitable. But if he continues feasting—generating short fields and timely field position swings with quality interceptions—the Cowboys will live with a little more famine. Diggs is one of the league’s best young playmakers on defense, and the Cowboys defense isn’t built to play bend-don’t-break football. They need a playmaker, and in Diggs, they’ve seemingly found one.