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Adam Thielen: Exponential Growth

Posted Oct 12, 2017

Adam Thielen’s exponential growth is a function of determination that has increased his talent over time.

Hard work and focus have propelled Thielen from special teamer and role player to being considered one of the special players in the NFL.

Thielen signed a multi-year, multi-million contract this offseason but hasn’t become complacent. In his mind he’s still just doing his job in Purple and the things that got him here in the first place.

Humility remains important to him in spite of an increasing highlight reel.

“I don’t know if teams are really trying to stop Adam Thielen,” he said with a humble laugh when asked about his increased success. “That’s the good thing about this offense. We have a lot of guys who can make plays, so I don’t think you can really key-in on one guy. I think that’s the fun part about the NFL.

“Every week is a new challenge, a completely different defense, as far as scheme and what coverages you’re going to get,” Thielen continued. “Some teams are a lot of man-press, and some teams are off coverage with Quarters or Cover 3. Every week is a new challenge, and you kind of have to reboot your computer to handle that.”

Thielen enters today’s game with 392 yards, which ranks sixth in the NFL.

He has partnered with Stefon Diggs for one of the most prolific starts by a pair of teammates in NFL history.

Success by either has helped the other and provided a boost for a team that has dealt with an injury to Sam Bradford that caused the quarterback to miss three-plus games and played its first game without running back Dalvin Cook last week in Chicago.

Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur said Thielen and Diggs are “very fine receivers” who give the offense versatility because they can play at multiple receiver spots (known as X, Z and F in the Vikings system).

“We’ve seen them make plays on the outside and the inside,” Shurmur said. “We’ve seen them make plays down the field and crossing the field. They’re two legitimate NFL receivers that are making plays for us. That’s important. They’re doing it in all kinds of ways. It doesn’t get talked about much, but when we’re running the ball, they’re doing a very fine job of blocking as well.”

Thielen recently told Vikings.com’s Mike Wobschall about the differences at the receiver spots.

“I think X and Z are pretty similar. The X receiver is usually on the single side of things where there’s no tight end, maybe more singled in the formation,” Thielen said. “The Z receiver is more attached with tight ends and motions and things like that. Then, you’ve got the F receiver, which is the slot receiver usually and a guy who is moving around a little bit more.”

By beginning his career on the practice squad and then as a reserve, Thielen made sure to master multiple positions to increase his chances of earning playing time.

“Being able to fill in when somebody is hurt or when things change, and being versatile so the coach can move you throughout the game [is how you get opportunities],” Thielen said.

With increased opportunities, Thielen has made the jump — and dozens of catches — in the past two seasons.

Thielen has done considerable damage against the Packers, especially since becoming a starter. In two games last season, Thielen totaled 16 receptions, 243 yards and two touchdowns, punctuated by a 12-catch, 202-yard, two-score day that featured Minnesota’s longest play of the season, a 71-yard touchdown from Bradford that resulted from an artful double move.

The 202 yards tied Paul Flatley for the third-most by a Viking in a regular-season game and added to Thielen’s strong days at Lambeau Field against Minnesota’s arch rival.

Back in 2014, Thielen recorded his first four catches and totaled 57 yards in relief work of a game that Green Bay won. The following season, Thielen rushed for 67 yards, including 41 on a fake punt, to help the Vikings claim the NFC North in the regular-season finale.

“I think Green Bay always kind of sticks out to me, even going back to my first year playing,” Thielen said. “I’ve always played really well in Lambeau. It’s a cool place to play, has got a lot of history. It’s a tough atmosphere, which I love.

“College was always the same way; when we went to a place that was a tough place to play and the crowd was nasty, it kind of brings the best out of you,” Thielen added.

Thielen first arrived on the campus of Minnesota State University, Mankato in 2008 with a $500 scholarship. He redshirted that year before beginning his rise through the ranks in 2009.

His production went from 21 receptions for 225 yards and one touchdown in his first season to 74 receptions for 1,176 yards and eight scores as a senior, one of the most prolific single seasons in Mavericks history. Thielen ranks second in school history with 192 receptions, third with 2,674 yards and tied for fourth with 19 touchdowns.

His progression in the pros has been similar. Thielen arrived at Winter Park on a tryout basis as an undrafted rookie in 2013. He spent that season on the practice squad, then cracked the lineup in 2014.

Now, he’s filling the stat sheets consistently and showing reliable hands on catches away from his body. He made a one-handed, 45-yard reception on Minnesota’s first pass of the game against Tampa Bay in Week 3.

“I think [catching the ball away from my body is] something I’ve always prided myself on and something that’s helped me get to where I am,” Thielen said. “When I was younger, I didn’t really have the ability to separate because when I was in high school, I was a little underdeveloped. I was pretty skinny and pretty weak, so for me to get a lot of separation was difficult.

“I had to use my hands, and I had to catch the ball away from my body,” continued Thielen, who tipped the scales around 160 pounds in high school. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t make the catches I did, so I’ve always kind of carried that along and tried to build on my weakness to create an all-around game.” 

Now listed at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Thielen is adjusting to other challenges presented by NFL cornerbacks.

“In this league, separation is not easy,” Thielen said. “The DBs are so quick and instinctive that you have to be really precise on your routes and know coverages because with different coverages, there’s different holes you need to get into, so a lot of times, precision route running really comes into effect when you’re in man coverage.

“When you’re getting zone coverage, you have to just know where those zones are, find them and get there quickly,” Thielen added.

The Vikings were able to move Thielen around and create mismatches against the Saints in Week 1. A route against linebacker Manti Te’o in the second quarter resulted in a 35-yard gain from Bradford that led to Minnesota’s first touchdown of 2017.

Thielen added a gain of 44 by winning inside leverage on Saints corner P.J. Williams.

It’s one of seven plays this season of 20-plus yards by Thielen, which ranks tied for fourth in the NFL.

“I think the more plays you make on those, the more comfortable they feel throwing them and putting them in the game plan and things like that, and probably on the offensive line,” Thielen said. “That shows a lot of trust in them to give us a little bit of time to get down field.”