The Minnesota Vikings’ season is set to come to a close this weekend following a divisional matchup with the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium. Regardless of the game’s outcome, however, the Vikings will miss the postseason despite once being widely considered a strong candidate to make a deep playoff run following five consecutive victories to open the year.
Minnesota’s 2016 campaign will instead be largely remembered for the team’s historic collapse in which a once-vaunted defense could not consistently maintain a high enough level of play to overcome a myriad of injuries, frequent situational missteps and potentially the most ineffective offensive line in franchise history.
But, it will also be regarded as the season Adam Thielen evolved from special teams ace into one of the Vikings’ most dangerous offensive weapons.
Following a strong senior season at Minnesota State-Mankato, Thielen decided to attempt to make the leap from Division-II to the professional ranks. Naturally, given his relatively unknown status, the former Mavericks wide receiver did not receive an invitation to the 2013 NFL combine and was instead forced to compete at a regional combine in Chicago, Ill.
Thielen turned in a relatively impressive combine performance — especially for a Division-II prospect — but the combination of competing against inferior talent at the college level and a lack of jump-off-the-page athleticism or physical build resulted in him going undrafted in 2013.
This did not deter him away from pursuing his goal of reaching the NFL, however.
The Detroit Lakes, Minn. native next attended a rookie tryout at Winter Park with the Vikings, in which he displayed enough talent to earn him his first professional contract and an invite to training camp. While Thielen failed to showcase enough ability to warrant a spot on Minnesota’s active roster in 2013, the team recognized his potential to become a future contributor and quickly signed him to its practice squad.
Multiple years have passed since the Vikings elected to take a chance on the Minnesota State-Mankato product, and, following a pair of outstanding years playing primarily on special teams, Thielen has emerged in 2016 as a go-to target for quarterback Sam Bradford in his fourth professional season.
After becoming just the fifth player in franchise history to record a 200-yard receiving game last Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, Thielen enters the final week of the 2016 season with 68 receptions, five touchdowns and 960 receiving yards — just 40 shy of becoming the first Vikings pass-catcher to cross the 1,000-yard plateau since Sidney Rice did so back in 2009.
His development from a more-or-less unknown commodity playing in the Northern Sun Conference to a borderline No. 1 option in the NFL has been nothing short of remarkable.
Not only has Thielen managed to succeed where first-round picks Cordarrelle Patterson and Laquon Treadwell have failed, but he has done so via “the long road”. He did not enter the league with the “benefits” given to early-round draft selections, as he instead worked his way up the depth chart through special teams excellence and making the most of the limited opportunities he received on offense.
Thielen, who does not possess the same physical or athletic gifts as Patterson or Treadwell, placed an emphasis on refining his technique and fundamentals in order to make up for what he lacks in natural ability. And, as a result of countless hours of hard work and dedication to his craft, the former Division-II athlete now boasts a receiving skill set capable of making defensive backs looks silly on a regular basis.
So, what are these traits that have allowed Thielen to excel in 2016? Let’s take a look.
Given the high number of absolutely ridiculous catches Thielen has made this season, body control seems like the perfect place to start. This is a trait that, while frequently overlooked, is often the difference between a reception and an interception. Active pass-catchers who best exemplify outstanding body control include Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, Atlanta’s Julio Jones and New England’s Rob Gronkowski.
Body control includes everything from adjusting to errant throws to finding a way to get two feet down in bounds with limited room to work. Thielen, while not on the same level as the aforementioned trio — yet — has provided a highlight reel of clips exemplifying textbook technique throughout the 2016 season.
In fact, this is a skill he possessed long before his time with the Vikings. Looking back at the limited available tape from his career at Minnesota State-Mankato, Thielen showcased an ability to react quickly to the flight path of throws and contort his body accordingly to make a handful of acrobatic catches:
Whether it’s reacting to a pass thrown behind him or reaching beyond the boundary to keep his feet inbounds, Thielen has shown outstanding body control throughout the entirety of his football career — and his quarterbacks are likely very thankful for this.
The above video of Thielen’s touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals back in Week 11 is potentially the greatest example from this season of this specific receiving asset.
- Thielen creates separation from Cardinals cornerback Justin Bethel
- Bradford’s throw, while in a perfect spot where Bethel cannot reach it, forces Thielen to twist his body around against his momentum
- With his momentum now carrying him toward the boundary, Thielen plants his left foot into the turf as he attempts to gain possession of the ball while falling toward the pylon
- At the very last possible moment, Thielen sticks his right foot inbounds to complete the touchdown, satisfying the NFL’s ridiculous catch rule
The above media player features three more instances of Thielen’s outstanding body control, including a diving catch from his time at Minnesota State-Mankato, an acrobatic reception along the sideline against Houston back in Week 5 and an absurd fourth-down play during his breakout performance at Lambeau Field last weekend.
Stefon Diggs may be the best route-runner in Minnesota, but Thielen is certainly a close second. While it is his outstanding body control that makes him unique to the Vikings’ receiving corps, the fourth-year wide receiver is as good of a route-runner as he is at adjusting to the flight path of a throw.
Thielen, who impressed scouts with his 6.77-second 3-cone drill time at the Chicago Regional Combine, is correspondingly quick off the line of scrimmage, makes crisp, precise cuts at the stem of his routes and even offers a little bit of creativity with regard to how he changes speeds or within the length of his strides.
The Division-II product, who has run close to a complete route tree for the Vikings this season, has utilized his talents both from out of the slot and on the outside, giving the Vikings plenty of versatility with players like Diggs and Patterson surrounding him. In fact, one could argue the reason for Jarius Wright’s essentially non-existent role in 2016 is due to Thielen’s progression as a receiver.
I personally prefer to use the Air Coryell terminology when referring to routes — which is listed in the above graphic for your reference.
The above media player includes a pair of slants, a deep curl, two deep outs, a dig and a couple go routes. In each instance, Thielen shows something a little bit different, whether it is a head fake, a stutter step, a double-move or just straight-up blowing by the defensive back assigned to cover him. As Quentin Rollins found out (5 – 2016: Week 16 vs. Green Bay), Thielen runs such crisp routes that he often forces his cover man to trip with hard, decisive cuts at the stem of his routes.
Before moving on to the next trait, I’d like to quickly highlight the stutter step Thielen pulled out on Rollins on his long touchdown catch (video above). The Vikings wide receiver comes to a screeching halt, and as shown in the screenshot, catches the second-year Packers cornerback leaning — which he instantly takes full advantage of. Thielen explodes out of his stop-and-go, Bradford hits him in stride, the Green Bay defensive backs collide and it’s off to the races.
These final three traits all somewhat run together — Positional Intelligence, High-Pointing the Ball and Acting or “selling the route”. Thielen’s greatest assets are his body control and route-running, but each of these traits run hand-in-hand with making him more accessible to his quarterback and maximizing the damage he is able to do on a given play.
Beginning with positional intelligence, Thielen is outstanding at sniffing out the soft spots in zone coverage. As shown in the video above, he allows Talib to back up into his zone, evaluates his positioning on the field and inches over toward Denver linebacker Brandon Marshall (who is also in zone).
In addition to finding the small window within the three Broncos defenders, Thielen takes a hard step forward in order to create extra separation, which makes the throw less risky for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and much more difficult to defend for any of the three Denver cover men.
In the (likely) event that a throw will be contested, a wide receiver’s goal — especially against smaller defenders — should always be to snatch the ball at its highest point. Again, similar to “attacking the football” in the previous example, high-pointing creates more room for error and makes the play more difficult to defend; it’s really as simple as that.
The above screen shot shows Thielen executing this practice to perfection. Despite lacking difference-making height (6-foot-2), he is able to put nearly a full arm’s length of separation between him and his defender simply by timing his leap and reaching his maximum extension.
Body control plays a role here — all these traits naturally blend together — as he needed to also find a way to get both feet down inside the boundary, but the key aspect of what made this a successful reception is Thielen’s perfect execution of the high-pointing technique.
While the level of competition in the NFL makes it difficult for him to pull off A.J. Green-caliber plays as he did in college (above), Thielen has clearly been working to improve his high-pointing technique for years — which is likely something Rick Spielman noticed on film when deciding whether or not to initially bring him into training camp.
Finally, the above clip showcases Thielen’s ability to “sell” a different route than the one he intends to run; I personally refer to this as acting.
Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, who — at least in my opinion — is definitively the best route-runner in the NFL, is absolutely outstanding at this. “Good acting” can be performed in a number of different ways (head fakes, shoulder movements, stutter steps, changing speeds, stride length, etc.) and represents an area Thielen has specifically improved over the course of the 2016 season.
The above video shows the Vikings wide receiver getting his entire body involved — from his head all the way down to his toes. Thielen changes speeds, turns his body around (as if he is expecting a quick pass), head fakes and then fires out into a slant, which Bradford notices and promptly drills him in the chest for a nice gain.
It may not be the biggest play Thielen has recorded all year, but it’s certainly an example of how he has continued to develop a well-rounded fundamental skill set.
Thielen still has work to do if he wishes to rank amongst the best at his position, but his well-developed techniques and fundamentals have already taken him much further than many believed he would ever go. Coming out of Minnesota State-Mankato and joining a depth chart that, over the course of his young career, has featured Diggs, Patterson, Treadwell, Jarius Wright, Greg Jennings, Mike Wallace and Charles Johnson, Thielen has been facing an uphill battle since the moment he stepped foot on the gridiron.
In a truly extraordinary example of how hard work pays off, Thielen has outlasted Wallace and Jennings as well as surpassed Patterson, Wright and Johnson through pure grit, determination and a relentless work ethic.
As a result, he can expect to see a sizable payday when he enters restricted free agency this offseason.
Marvin Jones, who posted 65 receptions, 854 receiving yards and four touchdowns with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2015 before receiving a five-year, $40 million ($27 million guaranteed) contract with Detroit this past offseason, likely represents a solid benchmark for what the Vikings will need to pay Thielen to keep him in Minnesota.
If the Vikings do, in fact, part ways with Adrian Peterson, they will shed $18 million from their 2017 salary cap, which will make re-signing Thielen — who likely has little interest in playing anywhere else, honestly — a breeze and allow the team to remain competitive in the offensive line free agency market.
Thielen, regardless of whether he snaps the seven-year 1,000-yard receiver drought in Minnesota or not, has already proven to be an excellent complement to Diggs. And, assuming Treadwell can get healthy and ready for action ahead of next season, should be a key component of a devastating wide receiver trio for years to come.
Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference; Salary Cap Information courtesy of Spotrac; NFL Film Clips courtesy of NFL Game Pass; College Film Clips courtesy of Andy Deering; NFL Combine numbers courtesy of Mockdraftable; Receptions courtesy of Adam Thielen.