A few years down the road, Adam Thielen will be standing on a podium inside U.S. Bank Stadium. Tremendously wealthy after Disney bought his life story and turned it into the No. 1 movie in the world, Thielen will wipe tears away from his eyes as his name is unveiled in the Minnesota Vikings’ Ring of Honor.
But that’s five or 10 years out. Today’s situation is much grimmer for the kid that has purple coursing through his veins and a team looking to build for the future.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Thursday that the Vikings could move on from Thielen because he holds a $19.9 million cap hit for next season. Such moves are common in the salary cap era but hit a little harder for fans who have given Thielen the vaunted “One of Us” label.
Even if this move had to happen someday, it doesn’t mean it had to go down this way. Thielen and the Vikings made mistakes over the past year that not only spelled the beginning of the end but provided the ingredients for a messy divorce.
It starts one year ago when Kwesi Adofo-Mensah took over as general manager. The Wilfs instructd Rick Spielman’s successor to keep the team successful, and the Vikings ran it back by restructuring the contracts of several players. The moves created short-term cap space and a roster that would win 13 games. But while some of these negotiations were out of necessity, others created messy situations.
Thielen was entering his age-32 season. A series of lower body injuries that included a high ankle sprain that ended his season and ultimately required surgery had sapped him of his speed and explosiveness. He hadn’t recorded a 1,000-yard season since 2018.
The Vikings could have tried to restructure Thielen’s contract to create cap space. Instead, they gave him a new contract a few days after the start of the league year. Most incredibly, it was not a restructured contract, but a pay raise that would make Thielen one of the highest-paid receivers in the league.
Perhaps the Vikings thought that Thielen would thrive in Kevin O’Connell’s offense, but his physical decline continued in 2022. He posted a career-low 1.08 yards per route run per Pro Football Focus and just 2.7 yards of separation per route according to Next Gen Stats. With a quarterback that is the Ron Burgandy of the NFL and an all-world receiver across from him, Thielen became an afterthought, especially after they traded for T.J. Hockenson midseason.
Perhaps Thielen’s downfall was shocking to Vikings fans who still think it’s cool that Thielen used to sell dental equipment before making the team as a special teamer. But it was predictable given the past couple of seasons.
In hindsight, it was totally understandable that Thielen would run to his phone to record a message to celebrate getting a few extra million dollars. However, it didn’t absolve him of what has taken place since getting a raise.
Thielen’s ineffectiveness was one of the reasons why the Vikings traded for Hockenson, who took over as the No. 2 option in the receiving game. When the season ended, Thielen’s wife suggested on social media that Thielen wasn’t happy with his role. When Thielen made his next public appearance at the Super Bowl, it was almost like he was rallying the troops, saying things like they’re “working through stuff” and insisting he had a lot in the tank.
In some ways, Thielen’s complaints echoed Stefon Diggs‘ concerns about a role on a team that was on its way to the playoffs. The outrage wasn’t as fierce, though. Thielen has homegrown roots, and he decided to show up for practice and not complain about it online.
It’s also similar to Kyle Rudolph, who was named the team’s Walter Payton Man of The Year Award nominee (as was Thelen this year) and awkwardly went into a contract renegotiation after the Vikings drafted Irv Smith Jr.
It’s unlikely that Thielen will be walking into TCO Performance Center with a hoodie that says “LOTS OF GAME LEFT.” But it’s the same type of energy for a player who’s physically declining and unhappy with his role on the team. Even Rudolph showed his disdain on the way out, claiming that the coaching staff was having him block so much they were converting him into an offensive tackle.
Of course, if the Vikings had retained Thielen on a modest salary, they could have simply smoothed things over, promised a sizeable role next year and moved on with their lives. Instead, Thielen is off to prove he’s as good as he once was. Isn’t that the type of scenario that has many men in their 30s taking a swing at the largest guy in the bar only to get sent through the bathroom wall?
It’s a scenario that will have many Vikings fans crying into their No. 19 jersey when it happens. But it’s one that could have been a lot easier with a few subtle moves.