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Undrafted to Unstoppable

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.

Adam Thielen - Mankato
Adam Thielen – Mankato

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.

Body Control

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.

2016: Week 16 vs. Green Bay
2016: Week 16 vs. Green Bay

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:

Credit: Andy Deering
Credit: Andy Deering

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.

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  1. Thielen creates separation from Cardinals cornerback Justin Bethel
  2. Bradford’s throw, while in a perfect spot where Bethel cannot reach it, forces Thielen to twist his body around against his momentum
  3. 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
  4. 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.

Route-Running/Footwork

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.

thielen-stutter-step-gbw1616
2016: Week 16 vs. Green Bay

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.

Intelligence/High-Pointing/Acting

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.

2016: Week 16 vs. Green Bay
2016: Week 16 vs. Green Bay

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.

thielen-high-point2-msum
Credit: Andy Deering

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.

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BJ Reidell

Captain Content and Superior Half of About the Labor: A Minnesota Vikings Podcast. Human Flamethrower on Twitter @RobertReidell.

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13 Comments

  1. Great article BJ, thank you!! It is nice to have one feel good story during a season where expectations were so high, only to have so many unfortunate and uncontrollable things take place.

    1. luvvikings – Appreciate it! Season may be a bust, but at least Thielen, Hunter, Bradford, etc. represent a few nice takeaways for next year’s reboot! Thanks for commenting!

  2. Theilin is a good WR, only going to get better. Good read BJ.
    Agree that he and Hunter will be good guys to have on the team next year. However…I’m not real excited to have Bradford back.

    1. ccarterhof – Appreciate it man. I’m still in the process of deciding whether I prefer Teddy or Bradford for the future — I TRY not to jump to a conclusion without doing a thorough evaluation first — but I do think Bradford put together a nice season, and, if nothing else, represents outstanding depth in the event that Teddy is physically incapable of playing.

      If I had to choose one today though … I’m a Teddy guy.

      Thanks for commenting, appreciate the kind words.

    2. Hey there cc. I wish to ask you, primarily due to the fact that I have read many of your posts and have a lot of respect for you, why do you feel that way about Bradford? I truly think that he did a great job, amazing considering all of the circumstances (barely a week to learn the Vike’s playbook before his first start, minimal turnovers throughout the season, his completion % despite so many being very short passes, decimated o line, no running game) and I do think he looked better than Teddy ever did. We can all “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve”, but Bradford also made many nice long completions too. It seemed like he had more 20 yard + completions in the 2nd half of the Pack game alone than TB did in two years. I realize that was an exaggeration, but the % of long attempts that resulted in completions for TB was quite low.

      1. The respect is mutual luv.
        Bradford…lets just say I believe he is overrated. He’s an okay NFL QB. Has not been a winner in the league. There’s always excuses for him for why he can’t win. He just can’t seem to get it done despite decent stats.
        Plus he went to OU, too many of those fans around me. I know Peterson went there too…that’s different, he’s good. There are many “Viking” fans here because of him. None of them know anything about the NFL. It’s annoying. Now Sam…geez, get well very soon Teddy! Now that dude…a winner.

        1. Ok, I can understand your stance. But I also believe that there is a difference between lame excuses and factual reasons. I find myself thinking that the jury is still out on both of them, just when I thought TB couldn’t throw an accurate deep ball, in a number of the above clips, TB was throwing deep to Adam. To be honest, I have found their respective field presence to be very similar. Not excitable or panicky, very calm demeanor. I was excited about TB’s potential during his rookie season, I was also thinking the same about Ponder, and similar feeling after one good year for both. Not comparing Teddy to Christian, just that they both gave hope for the future for half a season, not so much after that. But I also was so impressed with TB in the pre-season, was very hopeful (and even convinced) that he would make the leap this year. It is just a shame that Teddy suffered such a terrible injury just when he was looking like he was about to begin something special… sigh.
          My take of Bradford varies from yours. Even Rodgers was less than stellar without a running game and a decent o line. Aaron sure wasn’t looking at 2 1000 yard receivers last year. 97 for Diggs and 40 for Adam tomorrow to accomplish that feat. SKOL cc, and I sincerely wish you and yours a happy New Year!!

  3. What “Athletic gifts” does either Patterson or Tredwell have that Thielen does not? Speed… Nope, he is significantly faster than Tredwell, and is right up there with Patterson (4.42 to 4.45),hmmm is it size, nope! They are all about 6’2ish. Gee, I wonder what would make this writer think that both Tredwell and Patterson are more “Athletic” when they simply all in the same tier in terms of athleticism. Hmmm does anyone care to guess why? Lol

    1. John – Patterson is in a completely different athletic stratosphere than Thielen.Speed isn’t what should be accounted for either; lateral agility and quick-twitch movements correlate better when comparing these traits.
      Patterson: http://www.mockdraftable.com/player/4202/
      Treadwell: http://www.mockdraftable.com/player/6252/

      Treadwell is astronomically more physically gifted; he was a 1st-round pick despite shattering his leg because his structure alone is rare. Patterson is one of the most athletic players in the entire NFL, and I’m honestly not really sure how you even find him comparable with Thielen after seeing the things he can do over the past four years.

      Just because the first-rounders don’t fully understand football fundamentals or do well reading an NFL playbook doesn’t mean they aren’t blessed with far superior natural talents. There is a reason why Patterson can have an impact in the NFL without even looking at the cover of an offensive playbook or attending offseason workouts; his natural athleticism and God-given talent is essentially unparalleled.

      This writer evaluates athleticism based first on the perceptions that college and NFL scouts convey as well as what I personally see on tape — which conclude Patterson and Treadwell as considerably more gifted natural talents than Thielen.

      My name is BJ, by the way, and I appreciate the comment despite the sarcasm and honing in on 15 words of a 2,200-word article.

      1. Yes, ur so right, I mean just because he ran a much faster 40time then Tredwell, of course because Tredwell is BLACK, he is obviously a more physically gifted player LOL, I don’t know how Green Bay does it with their athletically limited blue-collar overachiever, Jordy Nelson LOL. The difference between me and you, is that I actually know what I’m talking about, and you don’t. Thielen is a MUCH more athletic and gifted player then Tredwell, that’s why he is starting. There is no “white wide receiver” voodoo going on BJ, Thelin, like Nelson, like Eric Decker, has an elite physical skill set, that when you get past their incorrect paint job lol get the sarcasm, can produce just like the ” athletic marvels” a guy like you fawns over.

        1. John – Why are you bringing the color of his skin into this? I just got through writing out a thorough breakdown of his visible receiving traits and how they have contributed to his evolution, and you’re throwing all that out in favor of writing out a lengthy and completely untrue world with zero tangible evidence to support it being realistic in which I use skin color to evaluate players?

          There are seriously 10-15 different evaluative styles exercised in this article, man, but you want to go out of your way to make me out as a racist? Why?

          Look at the Spider Charts; those are tangible evidence favoring both Patterson and Treadwell as superior physical and athletic players. Look at where they all attended college; that is a product of professional scouts opinion regarding what level of collegiate football they are capable of excelling at.

          Look at where they were drafted (or not drafted), which is a product of professional NFL scouts’ opinion regarding their future professional value as determined by their college tape, character interviews and the NFL Scouting Combine — which is focused exclusively on athleticism testing and lists results by how athletes were able to translate their athleticism to the tests, is then evaluated by using physical stature to represent classes and compared with historical players with comparable results before ultimately determining how relevant this information is and what round it argues players should be drafted.

          Thielen wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine in 2013 because he was viewed as a player who did not possess the athleticism or physical stature to qualify for this evaluation. He proved in Chicago that he has average straight-line speed relative to NFL wide receivers and a superior — but not elite — 3-cone time, which aims to determine lateral agility and quickness out of cuts, but the remaining tests were all below professional standard.

          These are facts of a player who is also white. Shady Salamon, a black former Gopher, was recruited as a running back out of Cretin-Derham Hall but moved to safety because he was not viewed as athletic enough to have success as a running back at the collegiate level. It has nothing to do with his skin color; he just simply was not perceived to be on the same level as other players. That’s how Adam Thielen was viewed, but to an extent that saw him receive zero Division I offers — and his average 6-foot-2 height was not the deal breaker.

          If you’d like to argue with me on a point, that’s fine, I’m very open to it. If you’re going to spend 10 minutes being rude and accusing me of something preposterous, that’s also fine, but I’m just going to continue throwing back facts, historical information and first-hand examples from my career to support my stance.

          I really like Thielen as a player, he’s an extremely pleasant person to talk to, I’m also a 6-foot-2 white male, I’m a Vikings fan and I just wrote an article praising his talent — there is quite literally zero reason for me to degrade him for his race, but in order to develop this narrative and argument, a comparison of his fact-based athletic and physical traits to that of the teammates, who happen to be black, that he competes for snaps against was necessary.

          I’m sorry that the result of this comparison pissed you off and warranted the fiction essay you just wrote, but you’re completely out of line and flat-out wrong. All you did here was read a paragraph of the article and springboard a snippet of it to confirm your bias that white players are perceived as unathletic in comparison to black players; that’s fine, but it has nothing to do with me or my analytical style.

          If you ever get a chance, please ask one of Adam’s coaches — high school, college or professional — where his athleticism ranks relative to other Vikings wide receivers. Feel free to use Isaac Fruechte if you feel the need to form your sample group with balanced racial backgrounds. Then ask what Adam has done to pass these players on the Vikings depth chart and how much athleticism or physical stature weighs in on how effective a player is at utilizing these skills.

          Enjoy the game,
          BJ Reidell

          1. I sure didn’t think anything you wrote was racist, merely factual. If there is any racism above I am thinking it is coming from the one trying to make race an issue. The web is a good indicator, it does not lie, and it is why it is used for NFL evaluation. Adam runs great routes, ala Antonio Brown (who is not as fast in the 40 as Adam, by the way). He also has great hands and body control. Oops, I mentioned a black receiver, I must be racist. He is very good for all of the reasons you mentioned BJ DESPITE his lack of elite athleticism.

            1. luvvikings – Glad to hear that his opinion appears to be an outlier as opposed to the majority. Appreciate the kind words, per usual. — BJ

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