The seeds for some of the week’s 3 biggest stories were planted this offseason, back when it was unclear if there would ever be be a season. In this week’s Debrief, I will focus on some of the early decisions that got us here:
The Bills would not have won Sunday without swapping Stefon Diggs. Diggs’ four catches of 49 yards and a score against the Rams do not jump out of the box – three bills had several receiving yards – but Buffalo would not have defeated Los Angeles without him. Sometimes it’s not about the amount of games, just the quality.
Diggs beat Jalen Ramsey one-on-one for a touchdown on third and goals from the 4-yard line, reading the field with the same eyes as Josh Allen, just before Allen was hit by Aaron Donald. Diggs and Allen̵
In the fourth quarter, Diggs slowly played Rams corner Darious Williams, waiting until the last minute to extend his hands on a beautiful 23-yard touch-pass from Allen. On the third and 25th and with the bills just 31 seconds away from officially gagging their biggest lead in franchise history, Diggs found a soft spot in the Rams’ zone to pick up 17 yards and set up a manageable fourth down.
Digg’s ability to often draw defenders of Ramsey’s caliber is part of his value. On a day when John Brown left with an injury early, Diggs’ presence opened the way for Gabriel Davis (four catches, 81 yards) and Cole Beasley (six catches for 100 yards). Unlike the rest of Bills’ catchers or runners, Diggs must be planned by the opposition. Through three weeks, his number screams (20 catches for 288 yards and two TDs) genuine No. 1 recipient in a way they rarely did in Minnesota, despite his superior play. Credit Director Brandon Beane for understanding what this bill’s offense needs – and credit violating coordinator Brian Daboll for having the vision of using Diggs correctly.
In his deal with the Vikings, Beane gave up a first round plus a fourth, fifth and sixth round in exchange for Diggs and a seventh back on March 16th. It was a steep price, but the bills did not have to work out another promising young player to develop. They have plenty. They needed a proven playmaker who could help their young quarterback reach his full potential now for a playoff. These kinds of players are sometimes difficult to bring to Buffalo and they are even harder to find in the draft. Allen and Daboll deserve the most credit for the 3-0 Bill’s quick start to the season, but Diggs was the missing piece to their attack. He has certainly been missed in Minnesota.
Trent Williams is NFC’s Cam Newton. Much has been written about how the entire NFL – including the Patriots – did not particularly want Cam Newton. If it’s a crime against football to let Bill Belichick snatch a new franchise quarterback for the price of a Hoyer, what about the rest of the NFL that allows the most talented, toughest team in football to acquire the worst left tackle for peanuts?
The 49ers’ ability to win games easily without half of their starting lineup starting at the front. Williams’ ugly run-blocking has made the highlights, but it is his pass-blocking that could make him a candidate for Canton one day. For three weeks, Pro Football Focus has ranked Williams as the second-best pass-blocking tackle in football, ahead of Monday night’s matchup between the Ravens and Chiefs. Williams helped protect Nick Mullens, starting in place of Jimmy Garoppolo, during a performance Sunday in which the Giants’ defense did not stop 49ers’ offense once.
High-quality left tackles are perhaps the hardest NFL asset to find outside of a franchise quarterback. 49ers upgraded from a retired Joe Staley to the low, low price of a fifth round in 2020 and an election in the third round in 2021. The 32-year-old is a free agent after the season, but it’s worth remembering that 32 is not that old in legendary left-tackle years.
There’s a bigger debate about the effectiveness of trade choices for proven NFL talent. The rams have taken this model to extremes, mostly with good effect. The 49ers have been on both sides of the equation, handing out draft capital to Dee Ford while sending DeForest Buckner to Indianapolis. In the case of Williams, the juice is definitely worth squeezing when it did not even include a choice that is probably among the 75 best choices. Ten tackles have a higher cap number than Williams this season, so he’s not even particularly expensive.
Do not sleep on how remarkable these zombie 49ers have been. I do not care how bad the football teams in New York are; Dominating two games with an overall score of 67-22 with mostly backups, as the Niners just did against the Jets and Giants, is an impressive show of organizational strength. Even with all the 49ers missing, they still have some dominant players left, such as their tackle combination (Williams and 26-year-old right tackle Mike McGlinchey, a first round in 2018) and 23-year-old center linebacker Fred Warner, a third player in 2018. John Lynch deserves credit for these move choices and for his aggressive move to maximize this Super Bowl window. Kyle Shanahan also deserves credit for approving Lynch as general manager job, in addition to committing an effective offense led by Mullens, 2020-round election Brandon Aiyuk and regeneration running back Jerick McKinnon.
Maybe the 49ers will never be healthy this season; I have never seen a team this decimated. But aside from Nick Bosa (out the year with a torn ACL), most of the starters are scheduled to eventually return to the field. When the 49ers become the “team that no one wants to face” in January, remember this early stretch where they managed their schedule despite having reason to implode. Also remember the trade Lynch started in the NFL Draft this weekend when one of the best left tackles in football was available for a song.