More Than an Underdog Story: Adam Thielen is an All-Time Minnesota Vikings Great

Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Thielen deserves more respect. To some reading this, such a statement may come off as preaching to the choir because a large swath of Vikings nation reveres the guy. He’s the epitome of a fan favorite. How could he not be? After all, he resides in the inner-circle of Minnesota’s prestigious “one of us” club – you know, born and raised “up north there in Detroit Lakes, kinda close to the cabin.” He also went to school at Minnesota State-Mankato, where he was a star player. “Big man on campus, don’t cha know.” Maybe you’ve also heard the tale a time or two… or 100.

On top of that, he’s an underdog story, because as you’ve also undoubtedly been reminded dozens of times by media types on both a national and local scale, he went undrafted after college. True story. Based on good showings at regional combines and a rookie tryout session with the Vikings, he was signed to a contract and wound up on the Vikings’ practice squad in 2013.

From the practice squad, he made the leap to the Vikings’ 53-man roster in 2014, seeing limited action (13 targets, eight receptions). It was a similar story in 2015 — when he was targeted 18 times, catching 12. Through two seasons, he had a measly 20 catches and one touchdown. But hey, he was a feel-good story – a local kid, made good.

From there, things escalated quickly — they really jumped up a notch once Thielen received more opportunities. He started turning heads with big-time catches and, soon thereafter, Pro Bowl-caliber stats. The Minnesota kid who nobody wanted badly enough to spend a draft pick on him kept grinding and made it all the way to the big stage, where he flourished.

It’s really a great story when you think about it, but it’s also long past time we all put that cute little narrative to bed. Thielen deserves more respect, but it’s a different kind of respect — respect not viewed through the lens of an underdog tale. Not because he’s a Matt Foley motivational lesson on perseverance come to life. Not because he’s Minnesota’s version of Rocky or Rudy or the Karate Kid.

He deserves more respect because, even without that backstory, he’s an amazing football player. In fact, he’s one of the best to play wide receiver in Vikings history.

Thielen is faster than you think. His hands and route-running abilities are upper-echelon by NFL standards. He’s got the clutch gene, showing an ability to make to big catch at the key moment: to wit, the over-the-shoulder, 43-yard bomb in overtime of last season’s playoff game against the New Orleans Saints that took the Vikings down to the 2-yard line and put them in position to score the game-winner. He’s also versatile enough to line up anywhere, an added value to an already impressive arsenal of talents.

Yet all these skills have existed within the context of that awesome Hollywood story and haven’t been allowed to take center stage on their own merits.

Beyond that, he’s been cast as the side-kick practically his whole career.

He’s played the Hutch to Stefon Diggs’ Starsky for several seasons. What? The reference is too old? Too obscure? It’s a good thing it wasn’t Laurel and Hardy or Fred and Barney. Okay, how about Batman and Robin. I don’t know if Thielen was Batman or Robin, but that’s not the point. He’s had to share the limelight. That’s the point. And now he’s been upstaged by Justin Jefferson, who’s putting together a rookie season for the ages and even showing the Minnesota guy a new dance move – which Thielen showed improvement on this past week against the Jacksonville Jaguars. You’ll get there, Adam. You always do.

Back in March, following the trade of Diggs to Buffalo, I put together my top-12 list of the best Vikings wide receivers of all time. Full disclosure: It was easier to do a top-12 than a top-10 so I didn’t have to decide between Hassan Jones, John Gilliam and Gene Washington for the last spot. Anyway, Thielen came in eighth on that list – one spot ahead of Percy Harvin and one behind the aforementioned Diggs, his colleague for several seasons.

After what he’s done this season, Jefferson already belongs on that list – toward the bottom, probably 10th. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As for Thielen, “Ope, let’s just scooch him past” Diggs and Jake Reed and into the top five or six. From there, the competition gets tougher: Ahmad Rashad, Sammy White and Anthony Carter comprise three of those top-five spots along with the two obvious players at the top, Randy Moss and Cris Carter, whom Thielen idolized growing up, like most football-playing Minnesota kids of his generation.

Let’s set aside the eye test (I’ve watched them all) and put aside the great story with Minnesota roots and just look at the raw counting numbers.

  • Adam Thielen: 101 games, 380 receptions, 5,036 yards, 37 touchdowns
  • Ahmad Rashad: 98 games, 400 receptions, 5,489 yards, 34 touchdowns
  • Sammy White: 128 games, 393 receptions, 6,400 yards, 50 touchdowns
  • Anthony Carter: 133 games, 478 receptions, 7,636 yards, 52 touchdowns

Taking into consideration how much the game has changed and become so much more friendly to the passing game the past 10-20 years, the stats posted by Rashad, White and Carter are fairly remarkable. That’s a tough list to crack.

Now let’s consider the fact that Thielen basically rode the bench and played special teams the first 32 games of his career – you know, when he had 20 catches and one touchdown. At the same time, remember that Rashad, Carter and White were immediate starters – and immediate stars — in their time with the Vikings.

Thielen’s stats from 2016 to the present: 69 games, 360 receptions, 4,755 yards, 36 touchdowns. On a per-game basis, Thielen’s run for nearly five seasons now puts him only behind his two childhood idols in the pantheon of Vikings greats at wide receiver. And in case you didn’t notice, Thielen isn’t done yet.

Yours truly had some doubts following Thielen’s injury-truncated 2019 season. Then in August, he turned 30 – an age at which it’s become harder to find big-time success as a wide receiver the past decade. It bears repeating that, since 2010, a 30-year old wide receiver has recorded 90-plus receptions in a season just 18 times. That’s fewer than two occurrences per season. And those 18 occurrences were achieved by 11 different players, led by Larry Fitzgerald with three. Thielen has 57 receptions with four games left, so he probably won’t join that group.

How about yardage? Fitz is one of only four wide receivers of at least 30 years of age in the past three seasons to top 1,000 yards. The others: Julio Jones, Julian Edelman and Antonio Brown. With 771 yards this season, Jones could get there again, hamstring permitting. Fitzgerald, Brown and Edelman combined won’t net 1,000 this season. Thielen has 721 yards and could very well join that list (and his rookie teammate) north of 1,000 receiving yards.

A reminder, only five different Vikings wide receivers age 30 or older in franchise history have posted even an 800-yard receiving season: Cris Carter (seven times), Rashad (three times) and once each by Anthony Carter, Greg Jennings and Jake Reed. You can add Thielen’s name to that list soon, maybe by the end of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers game this week.

Oh, by the way, Thielen currently ranks second in the NFL with 12 touchdown receptions this season. Cris Carter and Moss are the only Vikings to have ever caught more in a season. Moss caught 17 twice, Carter had 17 once. That’s the team record. Moss also had a 15-touchdown season and a 13-touchdown season in purple. Carter had two seasons with 13 and one with 12. That’s the touchdown company Thielen is currently keeping with four games remaining. He has a few more rungs to climb on that Vikings’ ladder… as well as a few more opportunities to perfect The Griddy.

Just so we’re all clear, by the end of this season, Thielen will have one of the best touchdown reception seasons in Vikings history in addition to one of the best seasons in terms of receptions and yards in team history – his 2018 campaign in which he posted 113 catches and 1,373 yards. Only Cris Carter has had more receptions in a season as a Viking (122 in both 1994 and 1995), and only Moss has had more receiving yards in a season (1999, 2000 and 2003).

Given the stats he’s putting up, and his continued ability to make plays, some of the one-handed, highlight-reel variety, it’s becoming tougher to argue that Thielen still isn’t in his prime. Moreover, it’s becoming increasingly easier to argue that he’s one of the five best to ever play wide receiver for a Vikings franchise that has a rich tradition at the position. It could be that he already belongs on the Vikings’ Wide Receiver Mount Rushmore. At his current trajectory, by this time a year from now, there should be no doubt his face belongs on that mountain. And, when all is said and done, he’ll likely land only behind the two guys whose jerseys he used to wear as a kid.

Not a bad career (so far) for anyone, regardless of where he’s from or how he got there.

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