What Does the Stefon Diggs Trade Mean for Adam Thielen?

Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

Saying or even implying anything remotely negative about Minnesota’s very own Adam Thielen in these parts is asking for trouble. It’s tantamount to saying “Goose” after “Duck, Duck…” or badmouthing Post-It Notes.

To be clear, that’s not why I’ve called you all here.

Thielen is a very talented football player and by all accounts a good person. For all I know, he owns a collection of leather-bound books and his house smells of rich mahogany and hotdish.

However, in the aftermath of the Stefon Diggs trade, Thielen is left as the only viable wide receiver on a roster that once again — for now — has the quarterback with the highest average salary in a league that’s never been more dependent on passing the ball. He’s the clear WR1, which at first blush might sound like good news for Thielen. He’ll see a ton of targets, right?

Not having Diggs on the other side will impact the type of coverage Thielen sees this season. There’s no question about that. Yes, the return the Vikings received in the Diggs deal at a time where their negotiating leverage was severely hamstrung due to his not-so-subtle desire to be traded was very impressive. However, the loss of Diggs’ playmaking ability leaves a void unlikely to be adequately filled for the 2020 season. He’s the NFL’s best route-runner and possesses some of the best hands in the league. That’s not something a salary cap-strapped team can quickly replace.

Dec 16, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs (14) celebrates his touchdown with wide receiver Adam Thielen (19) during the first quarter against the Miami Dolphins at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

With Thielen seeing more No. 1 corners and double-coverage this season, it will be interesting to see how Kirk Cousins responds. The Vikings’ handsomely-paid quarterback is not what you’d call a gunslinger. He’s reluctant to force passes into tight windows, usually opting for a receiver with more social distance from the closest defender. It enhances his completion percentage and limits the interceptions, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That is unless you have only one remaining star wide receiver for the defense to follow. The Vikes will need to find creative ways to get Thielen the ball and Kirk might need to take some more chances. But they’ll need more than that.

As of this writing, the Vikings’ No. 2 wide receiver is 2019 seventh-round draft pick Olabisi Johnson. He’s a nice player, though he can’t in good conscience remain second on the Vikings’ receiver depth chart. Fourth would be much better. And it has nothing to do with the fact he was drafted all the way in the seventh round. Most people don’t realize that Thielen actually went undrafted… after graduating from Minnesota State in Mankato… and being born and raised in Detroit Lakes. It’s true. You’d think someone would have mentioned that before. It’s a remarkable story.

Anyway, what’s clear is that the Vikings really, really need to locate some players to fill the hole left by Diggs. Signing a free-agent wide receiver (Dez Bryant, anyone?) or making a trade will be difficult given the team’s current cap situation. Obviously, the lack of cap room can be alleviated somewhat by releasing or trading away players with high price tags. The simpler option would be to earmark some of those 12 draft picks currently in Rick Spielman’s back pocket for wide receivers. This draft is loaded with talented wideouts, so taking more than one isn’t the worst idea, and that includes taking one in the first round or two.

Arguing that the Vikings haven’t had much luck with recent first-round wide receivers holds little water. Every single player in every draft is a roll of the dice to some degree. Just because we can all connect dots between the positions of a few players who turned out to be flops and the rounds in which they were drafted doesn’t equate to the Spielman front office (or any front office) not knowing how to spot a blue-chip wideout (or any other position). That’s a lazy analysis.

Even if the Vikings wind up drafting a receiver like Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, CeeDee Lamb, Justin Jefferson or Jalen Reagor — and even if they turn out to be really good — Thielen will still need to be their No. 1 threat in 2020.

There’s one other factor at play here, unfortunately.

Again, we all love Adam. Fun guy, local kid, yellow cleats, an amazing athlete, great smile and all that.

But history tells us – nay it screams at us – that 30-year old players who post the stats of a WR1 are rare. And Adam turns 30 in August.

If we disregard his injury-truncated 2019 season, it’s easy to assume Thielen is still the same player that caught 113 passes for 1,373 yards and nine touchdowns two seasons ago. However, such eye-popping, Pro Bowl-caliber stats aren’t often posted by 30-somethings in today’s NFL.

Pro Football Focus ranked Diggs as the 19th-best wide receiver last season. They had Thielen 26th. Only two wide receivers 30 years or older ranked in their Top 25: Julio Jones at No. 2 and Emmanuel Sanders at No. 22.

One only needs to spend a few minutes on to find that in the past 10 NFL seasons, 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’s three. Look at that! Another Minnesota receiver.

Moreover, Fitzgerald 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 are Julian Edelman, Antonio Brown and the aforementioned Jones.

And get this: only five different 30-something-year-old wide receivers in Vikings history have had even 800 receiving yards in a season: Cris Carter (seven times!), Ahmad Rashad (three times), Greg Jennings, Jake Reed and Anthony Carter (once each). That’s it.

All of which suggests Thielen will be in some rare company if he manages to have another season with anything like 90 receptions and 1,000 yards at 30 years old.

Doing so without landing a superstar rookie in the draft will make it that much more difficult. Doing so in a run-first offense led by a quarterback who doesn’t take a ton of chances is also difficult.

Thielen has overcome long odds before. The Vikings are banking on him to do so again.

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