Overlooked Thielen’s rise all in the details
Mike Jones: Vikings receiver has gone from Division III to one of NFL’s best
Adam Thielen has to have his coffee. There’s no skipping it.
“It’s his first order of business every day,” Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo says. “When he walks into the offensive meeting every morning, he makes his coffee.” Cream and a tad of sugar.
Only then is the receiver good to go, equipped to focus on all the details, grand and granular, of the daily practice plan and weekly game strategy.
Thielen is all about details. A foot placement here, hip twitch there, burst of acceleration then, change of direction later. The execution must come with the same precision every time.
Without this approach, Thielen —
who grew up idolizing fellow Minnesotan Larry Fitzgerald and now emulates techniques he has learned from training alongside the Cardinals great during the offseason — likely never would have carved out that role as quarterback Kirk Cousins’ most reliable target.
“He’s trusting us to get open. … It comes from OTAs, training camp, preseason games and regular-season games,” Thielen explained to reporters this week. “That’s where you gain the confidence of your quarterback. You have to make those plays on a consistent basis and have to get open no matter where you are, practice or in a game, to have that trust factor.”
It’s fitting that those finer points would matter so greatly to one of the NFL’s most overlooked stars.
Ignored by major colleges out of Detroit Lakes High in Minnesota, he settled for Division II’s Minnesota State. Undrafted out of college, he scrapped for a roster spot as a tryout player. He made the gradual climb from practice squad member to rotational guy to unlikely starter as prized free agent signings such as Greg Jennings and heralded draft picks including Cordarrelle Patterson failed to pan out.
Now here he is: The first wide receiver in NFL history to open a season with five consecutive 100-yard games. He boasts the most catches (47) of any wideout this season and trails only the Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins in yards (589). He’s also on track to shatter last year’s Pro Bowl-garnering totals.
Yet he’s overlooked and underestimated. Take a quick poll of defensive backs on what strikes them about Thielen’s game, and high praise doesn’t exactly flow.
Some will tell you nothing exceptional stands out. They will acknowledge his productivity and apparent work ethic but question just how special he is. Others will tell you the success stems from good route running and knowing where he needs to be.
Their points aren’t entirely inaccurate. Thielen does possess a tireless work ethic and runs his routes impeccably. And his relationship with Cousins on and off the field has certainly paved the way for his production.
But Thielen never gets the public credit he deserves for his athleticism, the fluidity with which he runs and his acrobatic catches. No one mentions his exceptional mind, pinpoint instincts and competitive fire.
All of the above combine to make Thielen the force he is for the Vikings, the perfect dance partner for explosive young receiver Stefon Diggs.
Those close to Thielen recognize and appreciate the total package he brings.
“Smart player, good body control, tracks the ball well, strong hands, fast,” Cousins said in a text message when asked about Thielen’s attributes. “Great teammate.”
Meanwhile, DeFilippo describes Thielen as one of the most well-rounded pass catchers he has ever encountered.
“He’s so versatile,” DeFilippo said. “He can play outside, he can play inside, he can play the single receiver back side, where you’re 1-on-1 and normally run with the best corner. … As a coach, if you get creative, you can really help a guy do what he’s good at, and if he’s like Adam and he has the knowledge and versatility, you really can line him up all over the field.”
Versatility is often overlooked when discussing wide receivers. A player will often possess the physical and mental ability that allow them to handle one of the three primary spots. Some can play a second in a pinch. But few have what it takes to thrive in all three.
“A lot of those jobs require different skill sets,” DeFilippo said in a phone conversation this week. “To be the single receiver on the back side, you’re going to get pressed all the time. You’ve got to have some shiftiness and some strength to you and know you’re going to get held and you’re going to get the bump-and-run. Adam’s got the strength and the savvy to run those routes. And you need patience in the slot. You have to be a precise route runner to play the slot position and to have the vision and the feel for zone in there, and he has that as well.”
The precision with which Thielen runs his routes and his extensive knowledge of passing game concepts, spacing and timing are all integral to his effectiveness. Those traits help him pinpoint openings in zone coverages and also set him up for more yards after the catch, which has helped him record a leaguehigh 31 first downs.
However, despite his success the last two-plus years (967 yards in 2016 and 1,276 last season), Thielen still has yet to garner rave reviews from opponents. But snubs are nothing new to him. They do nothing more than stoke his already intense competitive fire.
He always has a drive to win, whether going up for a 50-50 ball, playing friends in golf (those close to him say he has aspirations of joining the Senior Tour once his NFL career concludes) or joining a pickup basketball game.
As his journey has shown thus far, more often than not, he finds a way to come out on top — one defied odd, one tiny detail or one precise move at a time.
The Vikings’ Adam Thielen, pursued by Avonte Maddox and Nigel Bradham (53), had 7 receptions for 116 yards against the Eagles.