On August 10, 2016, the Minnesota Vikings traveled to the Queen City for joint practices with the Cincinnati Bengals. A year before Adam Thielen’s breakout season, he lined up for one-on-one drills with Cincinnati’s defensive backs. Onlookers reportedly overheard Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam “Pacman” Jones slighting Thielen and Isaac Fruechte. “We want to go against some dogs!” they said. “This team has no dawgs.”
Fruechte is from Caldonia and walked on at the University of Minnesota. He joined the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2015 and was out of the league a year later. Thielen? Well, you know his story. From Detroit Lakes. Signed as a free agent out of Mankato State in 2013 and turned himself into an All-Pro in 2017.
A big reason for that? The dog in him.
Thielen didn’t hear Kirkpatrick and Jones ripping him at that joint practice in late summer 2016. But Thielen knew what was happening when they dropped back in line to face other receivers. “They wouldn’t go against me, so they made the backups come up,” Thielen said. “It’s disrespectful. You feel disrespected. But at the same time, it is what it is. I really don’t care.”
Here’s the thing: He probably did care.
Thielen hauled in 69 passes for 967 yards in 2016, forming a dynamic duo with Stefon Diggs, who had 903 yards that season. A year later, Thielen had 1,276 yards, became an All-Pro, and made the first of his two Pro Bowls. He wasn’t just a fun local story; he was a bona fide star who led the Vikings to the NFC Championship.
Unfortunately, the Vikings have chased that epic run ever since and never replicated it. Mike Zimmer’s defense was elite and uniquely healthy in 2017. But core players like Anthony Barr, Xavier Rhodes, and Everson Griffen declined, and things fully unraveled in 2021. Thielen had 1,373 yards receiving with Cousins in 2018, but Minnesota went 8-7-1. Injuries held Thielen to 10 games in 2019, but he bounced back with 925 yards opposite Justin Jefferson in 2020. However, he only played 13 games in 2021, and teams limited him to 716 yards last season.
Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell kept the band together last year, engaging in a competitive rebuild. However, things are starting to unspool due to cap restraints. They cut Eric Kendricks, who had become the defense’s soul, to save nearly $10 million and will have to carve deeper into the roster if they can’t extend Kirk Cousins. Thielen believes he still can be a star receiver and wants a bigger role than the Vikings are offering. Minnesota’s offense must revolve around Jefferson, and they couldn’t afford to keep him at a $19.97 cap number for 2023.
Why? It starts with Cousins’ $36 million cap hit next year. Cousins occupies nearly 17% of Minnesota’s cap, and he reportedly wants a multi-year extension. Assuming he’s unwilling to take a team-friendly deal, the Vikings should ride out the final year of his contract and devise a succession plan. They need to extend Jefferson and T.J. Hockenson, who will demand a lot of cap space. Last year’s playoff exit indicated what this core’s ceiling is, so they’re right to think they need to reset with a younger roster.
But that doesn’t make Thielen’s exit any less difficult. Anyone who grew up a Vikings fan could identify with his story in some capacity. He was an underdog who signed with the team as an undrafted free agent. He wore Randy Moss and Chris Carter’s jerseys, then joined them in Minnesota’s pantheon of great receivers.
And he did so with no preconceived notions of greatness. “It’d mean the world to me,” he said when a reporter asked him about making the Vikings roster in August 2014. “It’s been my goal since I was a little boy. I’m kind of carrying my community of Detroit Lakes and my school here at Mankato on my back. I want to do it for those guys. It’s not just for me at all. It’s for my family.”
He kept his high school helmet and a Mankato State bobblehead in his locker as a reminder of where he came from. There’s no saying if he’ll bring those to his next destination, but he leaves a legacy of greatness here. In December 2014, he made history by blocking two punts and returning them for touchdowns against the Carolina Panthers. The Vikings hadn’t blocked a punt for a touchdown since 2006; they hadn’t returned one for a touchdown since 1986.
Thielen returned both punts in the first half, making the Vikings the first team since the 1975 Detroit Lions to return two in one half. That alone was a historic accomplishment, made even more incredible that a former D2 player did it. But Thielen has always defied the odds largely because of his relentless self-belief. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t a D1 player, no team drafted him, or he broke out at age 26. He still became a superstar.
But it’s hard to tell a player who’s overcome the odds as Thielen has that he can’t do something. If he had permitted the limitations others had imposed on him, he wouldn’t have made the NFL or become an All-Pro. Still, it looked like Thielen took a step back last year, and the Vikings have a cap crunch. It was always a possibility Thielen would end his career elsewhere. It’s the nature of a player who has consistently refused to take no for an answer.