Over­looked Thie­len’s rise all in the de­tails

Mike Jones: Vik­ings re­ceiver has gone from Divi­sion III to one of NFL’s best

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Mike Jones

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.

JAMES LANG/USA TO­DAY

The Vik­ings’ Adam Thie­len, pur­sued by Avonte Mad­dox and Nigel Brad­ham (53), had 7 re­cep­tions for 116 yards against the Ea­gles.

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