Diggs and Thielen. Thielen and Diggs. It was never discernible which name should get first mention. Both had unlikely rises to prominence. Diggs emerged in 2015; Thielen in 2016. Thielen was Case Keenum‘s favorite target during the Vikings’ 2017 NFC Championship Game run; Diggs had the Minneapolis Miracle. When Diggs was hurt over the years, Thielen picked up the slack, and vice versa when Thielen missed time in 2019. The two played off each other beautifully and built a friendship along the way, while fans debated endlessly which receiver was the true No. 1 — usually arriving at a dead end.
Now Diggs is gone, traded to the Buffalo Bills after a successful but discontented 2019 season. So much for those watercooler debates, at least until another receiver rises up to challenge Thielen as the Vikings’ clear No. 1.
“We had such a great connection on the field and off the field,” Thielen said of Diggs on a Zoom call with reporters. “I’ve been quoted on this already, but we kind of knew each other like the back of our hands. It’s definitely tough losing a teammate like that that you know so well, and the way we were able to feed off each other in games was something special. But at the end of the day, nothing surprises you in this business.”
Thielen, the oldest wide receiver on the team, will turn 30 this August. It’s hard to imagine that just three or four years ago, networks were airing Get to Know vignettes about a young, up-and-coming receiver from Division-II Minnesota State-Mankato. Now Thielen is the most experienced Vikings receiver by a long shot. The next-longest tenured pass-catcher is 25-year-old Tajae Sharpe, who spent four underwhelming years with the Tennessee Titans before joining the Vikings in free agency. Once August comes around, Thielen will be one of just seven Vikings at age 30 or older.
“I was talking to a few guys about this the other day, and I was like, ‘Man, I don’t feel like I’m going on year eight. I feel I’m going on year two or three,’” Thielen said. “It goes by fast, but at the same time it’s such a cool thing to have that bank of reps and experience. It just makes this game so much fun. The more experience you have, the more reps you have under your belt, you just get to go out there and play football and have fun doing it. You get to focus on the things that really are important, and that’s helping your team win, being a good teammate and being around your family.”
With increasing age comes increasing responsibility as a mentor. Thielen has seen a pair of first-round wide receivers join the Vikings in his eight-year career, and both fizzled out. Neither Cordarrelle Patterson nor Laquon Treadwell were able to match expectations after being picked 29th and 23rd, respectively, in the NFL Draft, so one of Thielen’s assignments will be to ensure that doesn’t happen again with 22nd overall pick Justin Jefferson.
“I think the biggest thing is just allowing them to trust me as a person and as a player to be a resource for them,” Thielen said. “First of all, it is good to create a relationship virtually right now to the point where they feel comfortable asking questions or calling me or coming to train with me. Things like that. That’s really my job. I know that I’ve been able to learn from some veterans that came before me as far as how they handled those things and how they helped me become the player I am. I’m just trying to be that resource for those guys and to know that, hey, when I’m teaching these guys and when I’m talking to them, I’m really talking to myself, because there are a lot of things that I need to get better at.”
Jefferson will have a tougher path than previous first-round picks because of the NFL’s virtual offseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Vikings haven’t been able to get the offense together at the team facility, nor have the offensive skill players been able to assemble independently to get in extra reps in a more relaxed setting. At this point, Jefferson’s NFL education is all theory and no practice beyond individual workouts. With Gary Kubiak assuming the offensive coordinator role and up to nine starters returning, the Vikings boast great continuity on offense aside from the loss of Diggs. But that does no good for rookies learning the scheme for the first time.
“Honestly, I probably wouldn’t be in the NFL if this would’ve happened my rookie year,” the undrafted Thielen said. “It’s kind of crazy to think about those things, but at the end of the day the best athletes, they can adapt. And I think he’s one of those guys. He’s taken advantage. I see him smiling and joking around in these virtual meetings, and he knows his stuff when they ask him questions, things like that. He’s been able to text me, ask me questions or maybe just BS a little bit, not even about football. So I think he’s a guy that’s an adaptable person, that’s why he was able to be a 0-star recruit and now was a first-round draft pick in the NFL.”
Thielen is living proof that draft pedigree has little bearing on NFL success, provided opportunities are available. From a personnel standpoint, there are few obstacles standing between Jefferson and the No. 2 receiver spot. The Vikings saw in Jefferson many of the same qualities they saw in Diggs, with hopes that he and Thielen can create a formidable duo once again.
“I think it’s very similar to what Diggs and I’s role was,” Thielen said of the team’s vision. “They could kind of move us around anywhere. We felt comfortable wherever they put us, and it just provides an opportunity for them to see what we’re really good at and to be able to put us there in those situations.”