It would have been a crazy thought two years ago. Heck, it was a crazy thought in August but the fact is that Adam Thielen has established himself as one of the most reliable producers from the wide receiver position.
Yes, an undrafted free agent out of Minnesota State, Mankato who made the Vikings in 2013 at a rookie tryout is among the league’s best. No other receiver recorded at least five catches in each of the first eight weeks of the season. He is currently sixth in the NFL in both targets and receiving yards, fourth in yards per game and tied for second in receptions of 20-plus yards. He ranks near the top of the league in yards per route run, earning him seventh-best graded receiver by Pro Football Focus.
What makes his production all the more impressive is he is not the huge play receiver in the mold of T.Y. Hilton, Antonio Brown or Julio Jones; his 13.1 yards per reception are 40th best and his touchdown week eight against Cleveland was his first of the season. No, Thielen gets his production by being steady. He finds ways to get open 10, 20 yards downfield and has the strong hands to make plays in traffic.
Let’s go to the tape.
Route Running and Hands
The two most important features of a successful NFL wide receiver. Thielen has both in spades.
Thielen (Top) releases inside, appearing to set up for a slant or post route. The corner stays on his back hip with good coverage to prepare for a possible cutback. Thielen in fact does break inside, causing the defender to bite just a hair too much and Thielen hits him with the double move.
Another, less obvious feature of this is how Thielen reads the safety. He sees him cheat ever so slightly his way and makes his post corner route a little more shallow to keep separation from him. Keenum throws to a deeper post corner, making it a riskier play and also allowing the corner to recover. Thielen makes a great adjustment on the ball and a tough catch in traffic.
Winning Battles at the Line
This is an area where so many talented receivers fail and therefore never make it in the bigs.
Thielen (Top) runs a simple slant route here. He gets jammed hard but he is able to quickly discard the corner, leaving him wide open for an easy 12 yard gain.
Crossing routes are designed to get defenders in man coverage caught up in all of the other routes and defenders, leaving the receiver open on the other side. That does not really happen here. This was just a matter of Thielen (Bottom) having breakaway speed and using it to get open for the easy pitch and catch.
Ability to Improvise
This play did not count due to an errant chop block call but it gives a good impression of Thielen’s connection with quarterback Case Keenum.
The coverage is good on the crossing route but Thielen (Bottom) looks back at his quarterback and sees he has stopped his rollout. He sticks his foot in the ground and takes a couple steps to his right, creating a good ten feet of separation. And since every defender has flowed to the other side of the field, he has plenty of room for YAC.
The wide receiver position is so often just about the little things; a step here, a head fake there, the ability to read the slightest movements from a defender make all the difference. That is what separates Thielen from everyone else: the little things.