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Inside the Bills: How the deal for Stefon Diggs ranks among top trades in team history

Inside the Bills: How the deal for Stefon Diggs ranks among top trades in team history

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Stefon Diggs is just one season into his Bills career, but the trade to bring him here can already be considered one of the best in team history.

Stefon Diggs doesn’t come across as someone who gets nervous easily.

To borrow a line from Outkast, the Buffalo Bills’ star receiver looks cooler than a polar bear’s toenails at pretty much all times. Heck, in a 2017 interview with The Undefeated, he said he wouldn’t even be nervous meeting Halle Berry.

Diggs, however, recently admitted to a situation that made him feel those butterflies in his stomach. It was back in May when several of his new teammates, including quarterback Josh Allen, gathered in Florida for informal workouts.

That was the first time Diggs had met them since he was traded to the Bills by the Minnesota Vikings two months prior. Just as the Bills were about to get started with a drill, veteran receiver John Brown brought Diggs to the front of the line.

That encouragement was all the receiver needed. He ran the route, and the nervousness melted away under the South Florida sun. Diggs was at home with his new team – even if he was 1,400 miles from where that team plays.

Fast forward to today, and the start of a new year, and Diggs reflects back on the move that brought him to Western New York.

“I was telling my people, just the other day, it’s the scene in the movie where a lot of things go right,” he said. “I’m not going to say anything is perfect. I’ve had my highs and lows, especially just as far as going into this (past) year. I’m just thankful to be where I am right now, because I didn’t envision it being this way or even working out this well. So coming from a thankful standpoint of being humble and still being hungry because it’s a lot more out there. I’m thankful for the group that I’m around, I’m thankful to be healthy and to be around such great people.”

After a regular season in which he became the first Bills player to lead the NFL in both catches (127) and yards (1,535) – setting single-season franchise records in both categories – the trade for Diggs is already looking like one of the best in team history.

Where it lands exactly on that list is up for debate. Here’s a look at five of the best trades involving player acquisitions in team history – and the parallels between the deal for Diggs and a move that came 34 years ago.

‘Biscuit’ comes to Buffalo

It was Halloween 1987, and the Bills were involved in a three-team trade that remains one of the biggest in league history. Needing a last piece for their defense, the Bills sent running back Greg Bell, their first-round draft pick in 1988 and first- and second-round picks in 1989 to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for linebacker Cornelius Bennett.

The Colts in turn sent all of that, running back Owen Gill, their own first-round pick in 1988 and a pair of second-round choices to the Los Angeles Rams for running back Eric Dickerson.

“When I got traded, I didn't think much of it,” Bennett told The Buffalo News on Thursday in a phone conversation. “The only thing I thought was, you know, I'm finally getting my chance to live out my childhood dream of playing professional football.’ ”

Bennett arrived having not played a down of professional football to that point. The Colts made the linebacker the No. 2 overall draft pick out of Alabama in the 1987 draft, but had not been able to sign him to a contract.

“Here I was just this hot shot No. 2 pick in the draft not willing to take what I thought was less than fair market value at that particular time,” he said.

Cornelius Bennett is on the short list of Buffalo Bills who can be identified with just one name. Or, in his case, one nickname. “Biscuit” earned that moniker as a child because he always had room for one more. Together with Jim, Thurman, Bruce, Andre, Kent, Steve and Darryl, they formed the nucleus of a team that made it

Bennett can relate to those nerves that Diggs felt in Florida.

“I had to just come in and be quiet and do my job,” he said.

Over a nine-year career with the Bills, few did it better. Bennett made the Pro Bowl five times in those nine years, was chosen as a first-team All-Pro in 1988 and was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week seven times. He had a knack for making the big play, forcing or recovering 41 fumbles. The Pro Football Hall of Fame named him to its all-1990s second team. Most recently, he was a semifinalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the first time.

“We wouldn’t have been able to accomplish our incredible run and pretty much having a foothold in the history books without Cornelius Bennett,” Bruce Smith said in an interview with The News last year.

The similarities between Bennett’s arrival and Diggs’ addition this year are hard to ignore.

In the 1988 season – Bennett’s first with the team – the Bills had the No. 3 scoring defense in the NFL. He turned in arguably his best season – making 103 tackles, 9.5 sacks, two interceptions, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

“Over time, I came to the realization that I was a big part of our success,” Bennett said. “I guess that's probably the only time you'll ever hear me say some selfish words – ‘I was, instead of we were’ – but looking at (Diggs’) situation, I definitely can say that he has been the key component coming in, the last piece.

“The team has played well over the last three years, been in the playoffs. They've had capable receivers in the past.”

Nobody like Diggs, though. The Bills ranked second in scoring and tied for second in yards on offense this season, a year after ranking 23rd and 24th, respectively, in those categories. Even as an admitted casual observer of the NFL, Bennett could see from Diggs’ time in Minnesota that the Bills had landed a premier talent.

“What I didn't know and couldn’t see is his locker room presence,” Bennett said, “but from watching the clips and the highlights, seeing how he interacts with everybody, especially his quarterback, he seems to be that guy, that locker room piece. It looks like he’s a team guy. He wants to fit in. When he first got traded, he met with his quarterback, they hooked up. That showed his desire to be a team player and not come in there as some highly sought-after individual.”

As with any trade, there were questions after the Bills made each deal. In Bennett’s case, they were acquiring a rookie. In Diggs’ case, they were getting a player who, while highly productive, was made available by his former team for a reason.

“I think the thing was, what was he going to bring from the off the field part of it,” Bennett said. “His attitude, being in the locker room, he's proven whatever his situation was in Minnesota, whatever they thought of him, he's proven them wrong. ... From looking at his numbers from in Minnesota to now, I don't know who you're going to go out and get a guy that's better than him. ... His maturity was definitely way ahead of mine. He's a much older guy than I was when I got traded. His pedigree had already allowed him to have a voice in the locker room.”

While Diggs never publicly asked for a trade, there was enough circumstantial evidence to suggest he would welcome one. When it finally went down – with the Bills sending 2020 first-, fifth-, and sixth-round picks, as well as a 2021 fourth-rounder – Diggs was ready for it.

“I accepted it before it even happened,” he said. “Football means a lot to me, but I also understand this is a business. You always have to go in with 'don't get your feelings or your heart caught up in the business, because that's never good for business.' For me, whatever new situation I was going to be put in or chosen in, I was just going to embrace it.

“The first thing I always try to do is earn the respect of my teammates and my coaches, and that's by working your butt off. Just grinding, putting that work in and letting the chips fall where they lay. For me, I just approached it as a business mindset, you know, having come full circle like I've got a new family. I'm really cool with these people here.”

Diggs is a perfect fit for the Bills. His skill set matches perfectly with quarterback Josh Allen. Any concerns about his unhappiness in Minnesota carrying over to his new home haven’t come to fruition. It’s hard to be too upset as a receiver, after all, when you get 166 targets and your team wins 13 games.

There should be years of production to come. At 27 years old, Diggs is in the prime of his career. He has three more years on his contract – and will be playing for an extension on that deal soon enough. Teammates and coaches rave about his physical condition, saying they have rarely, if ever, seen a player work harder on his body. 

Despite all of that being true, Diggs joked that he could count on one hand the number of people who believed his first season in Buffalo would go as well as it has – even if he believed all along.

“I was more so counting other people, as far as the people that trusted and believed that the process was going to work out and we had the right guys and bringing me here was one of the right decisions,” he said.

The trade for Diggs isn’t the only one paying off currently for the Bills.

Highway robbery of Hughes

When former General Manager Buddy Nix shipped linebacker Kelvin Sheppard to the Indianapolis Colts on April 29, 2013 in exchange for pass rusher Jerry Hughes, not much was made of the deal. Although Hughes was a former first-round draft pick, playing time was hard to come by with the Colts behind Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

Hughes, though, quickly showed all he needed was a fresh start. He had 10 sacks in his first year in Buffalo, and has been one of the team’s most consistent pass rushers ever since. He hadn’t missed a game until this past week, ending a streak of 146 straight games.

“Stefon is a little bit like myself,” Hughes said. “Once he was traded and he stepped foot in this building, he came to work every day. Learning the offense, getting with Josh, getting with (offensive coordinator Brian) Daboll, getting with his receivers coach – doing every little bit he could to catch up to the team, to be up to speed so there wouldn't be any gap.

“It was very similar to myself back in 2013 when I got here. I hit the ground running. I wanted to dive quickly into the playbook so I could get acclimated to it, so once we hit the field, I'm not holding my teammates back. That's the way Stef has been, and that's why he's had the season that he's had. He comes here and he comes to work.”

The trade for Diggs is one that truly can be viewed as a win-win. With the first-round pick acquired from the Bills, Minnesota selected LSU receiver Justin Jefferson. He turned in a record-setting season with 88 catches for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns. That’s the most receiving yards by a rookie receiver in the Super Bowl era (since 1970).

The trade for Hughes was much more one-sided. Sheppard spent just one season in Indianapolis before bouncing around to Miami, the New York Giants and Detroit before being finished in the NFL after the 2018 season.

So which deal was better?

“I got to go with the one that got us to 13-3, man,” Hughes joked.

There are other trades that were decisive wins for the Bills (for our purposes, we’re not counting trades that returned draft picks, so the deal that netted the pick that became quarterback Jim Kelly, for example, is not considered here).

Trading linebacker Kiko Alonso for running back LeSean McCoy in 2015 was another heist for the Bills. McCoy rushed for 3,814 yards and 25 touchdowns in four years after joining the team, while Alonso spent just one year with the Philadelphia Eagles. He went on to have three fairly productive years with the Miami Dolphins, but is currently out of the NFL.

Going back a few years, the Bills traded backup quarterback Dennis Shaw to the St. Louis Cardinals for wide receiver Ahmad Rashad. Shaw would throw just four more passes the rest of his career, while Rashad had a team-leading 36 catches for 433 yards and four touchdowns as the Bills went 9-5 to make the playoffs in 1974.

For now, the trade of Bennett remains the gold standard for the organization. What will it take for the deal for Diggs to take over that unofficial spot?

“Only if they win the Super Bowl,” Bennett said with a laugh. “Can they maintain? They don't want to be a one-hit wonder, because we've seen that before as well. Even though I half-jokingly say that, the icing on the cake would be them winning the Super Bowl. Then you could start comparing. I had a nine-year history there where we got better and better, finishing off in 1995, the last Bills home playoff game. That's our footprint.

“It's an honor to be associated with greatness and to be remembered, because that's why a majority of us play the game, is to leave our footprint in the sand so generations can follow after us.”

Diggs is off to a good start in that regard, but Bennett is right. A deep playoff run – one that culminates in something that those great teams from the early 1990s were never able to accomplish – would elevate it to an entirely new level. The first chance to start writing that legacy comes Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts.

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News Sports Reporter

I started at The Buffalo News in 2009, and have previously been honored as one of the top 10 beat writers in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors for my coverage of the Bills. I live in Amherst with my wife, Melissa, and son, Elliott.

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