Minnesota Vikings

Adam Thielen’s technical wizardry leading to monster season

Nov 12, 2017; Landover, MD, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen (19) runs after the catch as Washington Redskins safety DeAngelo Hall (23) chases during the first quarter at FedEx Field. Minnesota Vikings defeated Washington Redskins 38-30. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Thielen‘s story is well-known at this point: undrafted, small school, local kid makes the Minnesota Vikings‘ practice squad after initially being waived, and climbs up the depth chart for a monster breakout season in 2016.

How Thielen’s game evolved and grew into a player currently producing the third-most receiving yards in the NFL — and capable of winning all over the field — is another story, one that is being added to in significant ways this season.

Outside of the obvious hard work required to become the elite-level route runner Thielen currently is, I don’t know the details of his growth as a technician, but it’s clear that the training has paid off. He’s making corners look silly on a weekly basis, which makes Washington’s decision to cover him with a linebacker in the slot even more curious.

Redskin linebacker Zach Brown isn’t ready at the snap, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Thielen sells vertically to force the defender to open his hips, then puts one foot in the ground and breaks sharply back inside, displaying a huge window for Case Keenum with several yards of separation. Not a bad little burst after the catch either.

Thielen is a masterful route runner, and he’s capable of winning from the slot or on the outside. A reduced split opens more options in his route tree, which makes it tougher for defensive backs to defend against a manipulation stem as Thielen works a potential two-way go. This post-corner route from such an alignment forces Bashaud Breeland to open his hips up to the field, making recovery impossible when Thielen plants his foot in the ground and breaks outside.

Notice how Thielen uses his arm to windmill over Breeland, keeping his frame clean from potential contact at the top of his route, but also assisting in working his frame around so he can head to the sideline more quickly. That attention to detail is what makes him such a special player for Minnesota, and such a tough cover for defensive backs matching up with him one-on-one.

Thielen isn’t an elite athlete, but he has the necessary movement skills to play wide receiver at a high level, including tremendous change of direction and good burst and suddenness to his routes and releases. But that’s only part of being a good route runner; mental processing and spatial awareness are also vital. Thielen showed both on this touchdown grab Sunday, settling into the hold against the Redskins’ zone coverage, and then continuing to work to reveal a target for Keenum.

Then, of course, comes the hard part: Keenum tosses a well-placed ball, but one Thielen has to really work for. His hands and concentration are truly among the best in the game — the receiver is able to make a diving grab away from Josh Norman to finish an incredible play. Thielen had just three drops on 88 targets last year and has two on 83 targets this year according to Pro Football Focus Elite.

Because Thielen is such a sure-handed, technical pass catcher, he may mistakenly be identified as a possession receiver. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The Vikings’ fifth-year receiver is currently tied for first in the NFL with 14 catches of 20 yards or more and has three grabs of 40 or more, tied for seventh among all pass catchers. He’s a big-play option not just because of pure speed, but because Thielen knows how to vary his strides to sell underneath breaks and then win vertically over the top.

Keenum is having an exceptional year in Minnesota, but his success has largely come because of the prowess of Stefon Diggs and Thielen, who were both masterful again on Sunday. One of the most surprising outcomes of the season has been Minnesota at 7-2 without Sam Bradford or Dalvin Cook, and while the defense has been wonderful, Thielen and Diggs deserve a ton of credit for keeping Minnesota on track.

Given that Diggs missed time due to injury and had produced less in recent weeks before yesterday’s game, a strong argument can be made that Thielen is the offensive MVP of the Vikings this season. Not bad for an undrafted D-II kid nobody wanted almost five years ago.


1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Marg Pope

    Nov 14, 2017 at 8:44 am

    WTH? Linebacker Mason Foster wasn’t ready because he was in the suite for the injured players. My God edit your articles. Credibility is still valued by some. SMH.

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