What’s the Feelin’ on Thielen?
Gone is Mike Zimmer and the Minnesota Vikings play calling of old. In is offensive-minded head coach Kevin O’Connell. Although it’s expected that Minnesota’s offense will take a step forward, what does that look like for aging veteran Adam Thielen alongside arguably the league’s best wide receiver in Justin Jefferson?
Minnesota has always been home to Adam Thielen, and the “One of Us” narrative is so fun with him. That said, Thielen understands he’ll be 32-years-old this season and is coming off a substantial injury. He’s agreed to a restructured deal creating cap space this season, but he’ll be paid handsomely in 2023 and 2024.
Suppose Thielen returns both healthy and effective, which remain big question marks. What does his role in the Vikings offense look like?
Obviously, there’s no doubt that Thielen will start alongside superstar Justin Jefferson. He also isn’t the deep threat or burner that Jefferson is either. Thielen’s game has long been crafted around route running to create separation and hands that don’t ever provide doubt. How O’Connell decides to utilize that from a playbook that Thielen described as “the most learning (he’s) ever had to do” remains to be seen.
The last season Thielen played a full 16-game schedule was 2018, conveniently the last time he made the Pro Bowl. Playing just 10 games the following year, Thielen failed to top 500 yards for the first season since becoming a starter. In the past two seasons, the Minnesota State Mankato product has put up 925 and 726 yards, respectively, while hauling in just over 130 receptions. What is notable over the course of 2020/21 is how quarterback Kirk Cousins has opted for him in the red zone.
It’s hard to argue that Thielen is some big-bodied wide receiver or a prolific leaper, but again his separation comes from route running. With a shorter field, the ability to make quick cuts can be exploited and provide small windows for a quarterback to utilize. Two years ago, Thielen eclipsed double-digit touchdowns (14) for the first time before doing it again last year (10) in just 13 games.
In the last three seasons, Thielen has seen his yards per reception drop. It bottomed out in 2021 at 10.8. That could be a trend based on usage but also by design. Having Thielen run intermediate routes to move the sticks and create sure-handed opportunities for a connection may be beneficial in attempting to spread out the secondary on the edges. We haven’t yet seen what O’Connell’s offense will look like, but we know what Thielen has trended towards.
There isn’t going to be some sort of career renaissance that has Thielen all of a sudden torching defenders down the sidelines. Will he be used in conjunction with K.J. Osborn, though, or could he be relegated to something of a redzone specialist? How his health responds likely plays a critical factor in all decisions, but seeing just what the Vikings do to utilize a guy they are essentially married to through 2024 will be a fascinating case study in the year ahead.