Quandre Diggs is one of the most interesting players on the Detroit Lions roster. He was drafted by the Lions in the sixth round of the 2015 draft and was initially slotted in as a nickel corner. An injury crisis in Detroit’s defensive backfield led to him moving to safety in 2017 and the move rejuvenated his career.
The defensive back measures in at a small 5-foot-8, 200 pounds yet has still managed to make his name as one of the team’s hardest hitters. While he is still listed as a cornerback, he plays more as a run defending safety. Diggs takes a majority of his snaps as the defense’s last man and uses his deep positioning to read the play in front of him and come flying up field to make a play.
On this play in the second quarter of the Lions’ Week 8 game against the Seattle Seahawks he is the deepest man on defense. Diggs watches the quarterback from his deep positioning and spots the hand off to running back Mike Davis on the read option. He quickly gets into the gap Davis wanted, then as the running back cuts into a different gap Diggs is right there with him. The safety eventually teams up with linebacker Jarrad Davis to stop the run for a short gain.
Everything Diggs does from his deep safety spot hinges on his ability to diagnose plays. While one would imagine a player who usually lines up that deep would be focused on the pass, Diggs is usually focused on stopping the run first. His ability to quickly recognize plays, combined with how fast he is, allows him to quickly cover ground and stuff plays before they can get going.
While majority of the plays he makes are against the run his ability to quickly fly up field and undercut runners is valuable against the short passing game as well.
Diggs is lined up as a box safety on this play. He drops back to cover the left out, leaving the flat open beneath him. Davis leaks out there and quarterback Russell Wilson flings him the ball as he attempts to escape the pressure. There are around 7 yards between Diggs and Davis when the pass is thrown. The defender manages to cover the space in what seems like a split second and cut down Davis for 0 yards after catch.
The safety can cover ground incredibly fast due to the combination of his speed and acceleration. He is like a cannonball once he takes off but he is not agile enough to have any room for error. Diggs is great at barreling towards a target in a straight line, but his tackles can easily by dodged or broken by a ball carrier with great anticipation.
On this play, Diggs is back in his deep safety spot. Wilson hands the ball off to running back Chris Carson out of the backfield. Carson first dodges a tackle from Davis. Once the runner gets to the second level Diggs has a clear run at him and takes off. Carson reads his approach, though, and is able to throw off his tackle angle with a quick move. Diggs whiffs on the tackle attempt and is lucky that corner Darius Slay is right there to clean up the play for him. Diggs still needs a lot of work fixing his tackle angles and actually wrapping up ball carriers.
The Lions also run into an interesting problem when it comes to deploying Diggs on the field. The safety is a run stuffer. Usually a run stuffing safety will want to line up in the box, Diggs’ small size and relative lack of strength makes this a problem for him though.
Diggs is lined up in the box on this play. Seattle’s tight end—who in Diggs’ defense is actually a sixth offensive lineman—is assigned to take Diggs out of the play with a reach block. The defender stands no chance and gets bullied out of the play without making any impact. He has no idea how to shed blocks it seems, and his small frame leaves him helpless when a blocker gets to him at the second level.
Detroit usually tries to avoid this situation by allowing him to lineup as a deep safety. This creates two additional problems, though.
First, if Diggs is lines up as a center fielder, then someone else has to take his place on the inside. Detroit usually lines up with five defensive backs on the field and one has to be in the box to adequately provide run support. Glover Quin is usually the one who gets stuck with the job, but he is not the best against the run and has been an awful box safety this season. They could put an additional linebacker on the field, but Detroit’s linebackers are not very good. Tavon Wilson, the guy who lost his job to Diggs, is an option as well. Wilson is a good run defender but not very good in pass coverage.
Having Diggs and Wilson on the field together seems redundant and leaves the team vulnerable against the pass. Diggs is not very good in man coverage no matter where he lines up as he does not have the ball-playing skills needed to make up for his lack of size.
The defensive back lines up across tight end Ed Dickson in the slot on this play. Dickson has nine inches and 50 pounds on Diggs, and he easily beats him for a touchdown on a corner route. The undersized safety stands no chance and his poor ball-playing skills that have haunted him all season rear their head here.
Diggs coverage struggles also exist when he plays in deeper zones, creating the second issue with having him lineup so deep pre-snap. If the safety lines up as the deepest man, then he will usually have to take a deep zone in coverage. This puts a huge target on the undersized defensive back. While he is great at handling passes thrown in front of him he is not very good when he is required to backpedal into coverage as his missile-like qualities do not really translate.
While Diggs is fine at what he does, he probably is not a reliable starting strong safety going forward. He is a great run defender with an obvious deficiency that limits where he can be used.
This is where rookie safety Tracy Walker can come into play. The third-round pick is an extremely raw prospect but he has a lot of potential. He has the size and measurables that Diggs lacks and can be a force as a box safety. Walker can potentially cover tight ends man-to-man and drop back into deep zone coverage. His tacking and run defense needs work but he there is a path for him to develop into the team’s starting strong safety next season. While this would marginalize the role Diggs plays, it would also let him become a true specialist who is on the field during specific packages. Similar to how the Lions used Miles Killebrew before he fell off the face of the earth.
For now, though, Diggs is a good player with some glaring flaws. He is not the stand-out strong safety he looked like he could become at some points last season, but he is great run defender and is not a total mess in coverage—something that can not be said of other Lions defensive backs.