2021 was a gratifying year to watch the Dallas Cowboys defense. While they were middle of the pack in most statistics, they were mostly not the vulnerable unit of the previous few seasons. The emergence of Micah Parsons was a big part of it, but so was the sophomore season for Trevon Diggs. He became a very dangerous ballhawk as he led the NFL in interceptions. Between Parsons’ 13 sacks, sixth most in the league despite him only being a part-time pass rusher, and Diggs’ 11 interceptions, they came up with vital stops far more often than we had become accustomed to. However, defensive performance is one of the least replicable things year to year. We may need to dial back the optimism for how they perform, and that is more applicable for Diggs than perhaps any other player.
The problem concerning Diggs is that he was so outstanding at getting interceptions last year it is almost impossible to equal. HIs 11 picks not only led the league. It was the highest total since 1981, when Everson Walls, a woefully under-respected Cowboy, had the same. Some may carp that he had the extra opportunity provided by the inaugural 17-game season, but he snagged pick 11 in game 16, so it holds up all the way to the point the 16-game season was introduced in 1978. Hitting double digits is remarkable, with only 12 other players getting there since Walls.
Despite his accomplishments last year, detractors still claim that Diggs is simply not that good. He is seen as giving up too many yards outside of the interceptions which supposedly makes him one-dimensional. A pick, however, is the single most impactful play a defensive back can make, especially when they take it all the way back for a touchdown. Diggs did that twice in 2021. He also netted 142 yards total returning the ball. That is invaluable field position for his offense. For some reason, the fact he was far less effective his rookie year is pointed to as why he is not really good. We see an awful lot of videos from that season to show how “poor” he is in coverage. But while he got beat at times for big gains last year, he also completely shut down some highly regarded wide receivers. One in particular was the Washington Commanders’ Terry McLaurin, who was completely shut out in the first meeting last season and held to 40 yards the second time around. Admittedly McLaurin was playing with a big disadvantage at quarterback. Now many are hoping Carson Wentz will unlock his potential. We shall see.
Another historical argument that can be posited is that the game is far more dependent on the pass than it once was. That opens up more chances for interceptions, benefitting Diggs and really all defensive backs. However, in 2019, the league-high mark for picks was a three way tie with just six. The year before it was seven. 11, or even close, is all but certainly unsustainable.
Don’t be surprised if Diggs just has fewer occasions when he has a shot at taking the ball away. Offensive coordinators are going to be well aware of what he did in 2021. For those with a more iffy quarterback, it might well be a strategy to limit throws in his direction. Even in the case of the upcoming opponents with successful veteran quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Matt Stafford, they are likely to be a bit selective in when they might go after the receiver Diggs is covering. One way those experienced stars keep their interceptions down is avoiding throws with a higher likelihood of getting taken away. Clearly, Diggs is in and of himself a higher likelihood.
Based on all the data, Diggs will be lucky to have half the picks he did last year. If he is held to just five, a not at all unreasonable expectation, there will be many who bemoan the falloff and wonder if opposing teams have figured him out. But last year, five interceptions tied for fourth best in the NFL. It would still have him among the league leaders.
Even if his picks do go down a great deal, which we should all brace for, he can still make a major contribution to the defense. If offensive coordinators and quarterbacks prefer to stay away from him, he will greatly reduce the threat of whichever receiver he covers. Dan Quinn and his passing game coordinator Joe Whitt are no dummies. You can expect them to try and get Diggs matched up with the best receiver on the other team. That does mean that Diggs will inevitably get beaten at times. But he will also likely have the effect of fewer balls coming his direction, which will pay off in the end. We cannot only judge Diggs’ 2022 by how it looks compared to 2021. Those numbers were a true outlier, and quite likely will be the high point of his entire career. That is not at all a knock on him. He may well finish more seasons as the league leader in interceptions, just not with double digits. If you temper those expectations a bit, you may find it much easier to appreciate what he does bring to the Cowboys.