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Game of Adjustments: Vikings, Adam Thielen Wrap Heads Around Reunion

WR Adam Thielen
WR Adam Thielen

Different state, logo, colors and player entry tunnel, but same Adam Thielen still proving he belongs in the NFL.

Thielen has handled the adjustments of changing teams like a pro, transitioning from Minnesota, where he was on the 53-man roster from 2014-22, to Carolina this offseason.

"I kind of felt like a rookie again, just figuring out where everything's at in the facility," Thielen said Wednesday during a call with Twin Cities media members. "Even going to the first couple preseason games at home and figuring out what tunnel we're running out of. The littlest things, right? Everything was so new. So it just took a long time to feel like my feet were underneath me.

"But it was all good things. It was just kind of a fresh, again, I felt like I was a rookie again, where you just kind of had to figure it out," Thielen added. "You had to go out there and prove who you were every day because none of these coaches or people in the organization, they hadn't seen me in person. They didn't really know what kind of a player – they had an idea, but they didn't really know what kind of a player I was or what kind of a person I am. Just having to go and prove that every day, it's been really good for me."

Now there's the challenge of facing the team he rooted for years before earning his position on the franchise's career leaderboard in receptions (third), yards (fourth) and touchdowns (third).

The man responsible for so many Vikings highlights for almost a decade is now watching game film of his former teammates in preparation to face his home-state team for the first time.

"It's already been a little weird watching tape, talking about personnel and stuff," Thielen said. "It's crazy to be game planning against guys who obviously were my teammates for a long time. It's been a little different."

Few things are predictable in the NFL, but there's a great chance some purple 19 jerseys will be spotted in the stands, adorning fans hoping for Minnesota's first win of 2023 after a disappointing 0-3 start.

"I'm so blessed to be a part of that organization and that team, not only because of the people within that organization, the players and all that, but really the fans," Thielen said. "Shoot, I grew up a fan, right? I was one of them, and now to be on the other side of that, man, I mean, we were talking about it as we were walking back from walk-through this morning, we were talking about how Vikings fans travel.

"I look back to when we played in Arizona, and 40 percent of the stadium is Vikings fans, and at the end of the game, it was all Vikings fans, so just that support and tradition, it's an unbelievable organization, and I'm sure there will be a lot of Vikings fans and a lot of 19 jerseys in the stands, but not as many blue 19s as purple 19s," Thielen said. "I'm excited to see that support again and very thankful for it."

Thielen has caught 20 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns on 25 targets this season for the Panthers, who also are seeking their first victory of 2023.

He will be laser focused on doing everything he can to help Carolina once the game starts, but he also will allow some extra time for reunions before kickoff.

"Obviously the players I played with for so long, the coaches, people in the organization that I can't wait to see and give them a big hug," Thielen said. "I can't wait to see those guys. I'm going to get out extra early for pregame warmups so I can make sure I can see all those guys and all the people that have meant so much to me and really just thank them. Thank all the people who have been influential in my life and helping me not just be a good football player but help me through life.

"Oh man, I look at a lot of those guys in that locker room that are going to be on that field on Sunday that have been much more influential in my life than football, so I just can't wait to catch up and see everybody and go to work once the clock starts running and get between those lines and go play football," he said.

The admiration from former teammates is mutual.

"Yeah, definitely. He's a great football player, he's a great father, he's a great husband," Vikings safety Harrison Smith said. "Great guy in the locker room. Very fortunate to have spent a lot of my career playing with a guy like that. Now he's on the other side."

Smith has seen plenty of Thielen's catches in games and on the practice fields. Now, he'll be part of trying to limit those for the span of about three hours Sunday.

"It'll be different. Spent so much time together – in the locker room, playing together. It's different to see him in different colors, watching him on tape," Smith said. "But he's doing his thing over there. You know, it's just like any other game."

Quarterback Kirk Cousins recalled playing against Thielen and the Vikings while with Washington in 2017. Thielen caught eight passes for 166 yards and a touchdown in that game.

"He had a big day. He's a great player. I was a beneficiary of that for many years," Cousins said. "I know that Carolina's excited to have him, and I think he's got a lot of good football left in him. We've gotta contain him. I'll always be pulling for him, but on Sunday, obviously, we'll have different interests for the first time in about six years."

Thielen was part of welcoming Cousins to Minnesota in 2018 and a locker room neighbor who visited the QB in Atlanta that first offseason.

"We threw together, played golf, just got to know each other. There was just a lot of time on task together, and he and Stefon Diggs, really, right away made my first year here a lot easier than it otherwise would have been – just because of how talented they were and how open they were for me," Cousins said. " 'Flip' (former Vikings Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo) used them a ton. And he's just been so reliable all these years. A great football player, and I would think he'll always have a great impact on this community when he's done playing. He'll still be here and be someone who, you'll hear his name. Because he's just a person who will be around and making a difference."

Cousins also recalled having a bit of a question mark initially.

"Well, I remember [former quarterbacks coach/Offensive Coordinator] Kevin Stefanski – because you think [Minnesota State Mankato], undrafted, try-hard. You know, we always roll our eyes at those kinds of reports on guys," Cousins said. "So I probably wouldn't have given him the credit that he deserved, because I would have been like everybody else who judged a book by its cover, lookin' at his bio.

"And Kevin Stefanski is the one who said, 'This guy's 4.4, this guy's the No. 1, this guy can do it.' So from day one, I went in from Kevin's breakdown saying, 'All right, I've gotta treat this guy like he was a first-round pick and block out the fact that he played D2 ball and he's kind of had to fight his way up here,' " he continued. "So Kevin's breakdown really helped and proved to be true, because then when we went out and threw, and obviously Stefon Diggs has become a clear No. 1 in this league, and a Pro Bowler, and that was Adam – you could see that. They could go toe-to-toe with each other.

"We had two of those guys, and it obviously made it a lot of fun as a quarterback. And Adam's been doing it for so long. Again, I challenged this to Justin [Jefferson], you know, the ability to do it for a long time," Cousins continued. "It really marks you as a great player, and Adam's done it for a long time."