Sorry, folks, none of the players vying for a roster spot this year are from small-town Minnesota. K.J. Osborn didn’t go to Bemidji. Chad Beebe isn’t from Alexandria. Ihmir Smith-Marsette probably couldn’t find Brainerd on a map. There may never be another player who attends a D2 school like Mankato and walks onto his favorite team, only to become one of the Minnesota Vikings’ star receivers.
Minnesota’s third receiver won’t hail from Owatonna or Orono. Adam Thielen is singular in his ambition and accomplishments. But he has created a blueprint for overlooked or undervalued players looking to make it in the NFL, even if they are from Ypsilanti, Aurora, or, um, Newark.
“It’s great to have a guy like Adam Thielen,” said Ryan Ficken, who was promoted to special teams coordinator after serving as an assistant from 2013-20.
“We kind of spoke with the core guys the other day in terms of where he came from – he was essentially a rookie tryout guy in [minicamp] and was on the practice squad, earned a spot there, then came on special teams, did a great job on special teams, and that set up the foundation for him to go ahead and move forward and have the success he is now on offense.
“It just gave him an opportunity to make a football team, and that carried over into his offensive play. He’d be the first one to admit that, and he’s spoken to our guys about it before, and he does it regularly.”
The paradox for depth receivers like Osborn, Smith-Marsette, and Beebe is that they usually haven’t played a lot of special teams in college. Most players who are good enough to be drafted or walk onto an NFL team are highly recruited out of high school and start right away in college. But for late-round picks or undrafted players, carving out a role on special teams is often the best way to get on the field in the NFL and ensure they stay on the roster.
“At this level, a lot of these receivers don’t play special teams in college. So right now, they’ve got to [try] to be the best [all-around] football player,” said Ficken.
“It’s finding how they can create value. That’s the most important thing. I don’t see them as wide receivers, running backs, linebackers. I just see: How can they help our football team win football games? And what can we do to put them in a position to be successful.
“In terms of receivers – I mean, they’ve got to be able to play all positions – if it’s a returner…to hold-ups, blocking. I mean, they’ve got to be able to become a full football player as we see it.”
So, who’s got the best chance to follow the Thielen path?
It probably will be Smith-Marsette or Osborn. Unlike Beebe, who is entering his fourth season and has only shown depth receiver upside, Smith-Marsette and Osborn look capable of being high-end receivers given their respective athletic profiles. Smith-Marsette ran a 4.43, and Osborn was clocked at 4.48.
“Obviously, speed, that’s something that we can’t coach,” said Ficken. “If you can run, you have value.”
But Thielen’s success was predicated more on route-running technique than raw athleticism. Smith-Marsette (Iowa) and Osborn (Miami) were star receivers at big-time programs and were selected in the fifth round in back-to-back drafts with the idea that they could develop into receivers. Smith-Marsette has had WR3 potential since he was drafted, and Osborn is already considered a sleeper for the WR3 spot after a good camp.
For what it’s worth, both players seem to have embraced that path. Osborn knew he would be a returner when he was drafted and had mixed results as a returner last season. We’ll see if that was more a product of the general malaise on special teams last year or specific to him. Smith-Marsette? Well, he seems to be embracing his role as a potential special-teamer.
“It’s still somewhat fresh to him, a little bit,” said Ficken. “Still a little bit new, but he’s doing a great job just trying to embrace the role, and everything we throw at him, he’s been very positive. He’s willing to do it.”
Until Thielen shows signs of slowing down, neither player is likely to be anything more than a third receiver. But as he progresses into his 30s, someone will need to take his place to become a one-two punch with Justin Jefferson. It would be fitting if it was another receiver who, like Thielen, began their career on special teams and followed his winding path to stardom.