Adam Thielen‘s identity was long cast as half of one of the NFL’s top receiving duos. Over five seasons, Thielen and Stefon Diggs became the perfect complement to one another within the Minnesota Vikings‘ offense.
Now, things are changing for Thielen.
After the Vikings traded Diggs to the Buffalo Bills in March, Thielen became the unquestioned leader of the Vikings’ wide receiver corps.
“I’m excited about this group that we have now,” Thielen said Tuesday. “There’s a lot of guys in that room that have a lot of talent and that have been able to grow as football players these last couple years or last year or maybe last week, and I’m excited to see them on the field.
“For me, it just kind of provides a little bit of excitement to try to teach and help and grow some of these young guys to make some big plays. At the end of the day, in this day and age in the NFL, rookies have to make plays and they have to be a big part come January and February. So I’m excited to help with that.”
Thielen, who turns 30 in August, is almost nine years older than Justin Jefferson, the receiver the Vikings selected 22nd overall last month as the heir apparent to Diggs. And if all goes according to plan, it will be Jefferson who lines up opposite Thielen as the Vikings’ No. 2 receiver.
In addition to expanding his role as the alpha among his position group, Thielen’s responsibilities include breaking in a young crop of receivers, from Jefferson to Tajae Sharpe, the second-oldest receiver at 25 years old, along with Bisi Johnson, Chad Beebe and several others.
“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, who set an LSU record with 111 receptions in 2019, caught 100 of those passes on routes run out of the slot. When the 6-foot-1 receiver was drafted, the subject of Thielen’s role became a hotly debated topic.
Though Thielen has built himself into one of the NFL’s top threats out of the slot, he has lined up wide (58%) for the majority of his routes in his career. Jefferson spent his sophomore season at LSU as an outside receiver, but his proficiency in the slot and the lack of time he may have to build a rapport with quarterback Kirk Cousins could lead the Vikings to keep him where he had success last year.
“He ran the entire pro route tree from the slot at LSU this past season,” ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen said. “His route tree is really, really defined and really detailed inside the numbers. He’s unique in terms of being a slot receiver because he has a long frame. He’s more of an angular runner. He’s not that dynamic, lateral, change-of-direction ability receiver. He’s more of a straight-line guy who runs on angles.”
So if Jefferson fits best for Minnesota in the slot, what does that mean for Thielen?
“Adam Thielen can be a No. 1 wide receiver, I really believe that,” Bowen said. “Based on his traits and his ability to line up inside or outside, be out wide outside the numbers, be in the slot, be inside in the stack or bunch formation, you can put him anywhere on the football field. Now will he see more coverage rotations towards him? Of course he would. If I’m a defensive coordinator, who am I going to try to take away? In critical game situations — third-and-7-plus, in the red zone, two-minute drill, fourth quarter — am I going to take away the rookie or am I going to take away Thielen?”
Added Thielen: “I always like to prove that it doesn’t matter where you put me. I’m going to be ready, and I’m going to be comfortable, and I’m going to be excited about that role. So I’m just going to continue to work on being an all-around good football player, and I would assume that these other guys are doing the same thing. And I’m excited to see what that role will be and see on this team, who’s going to step up and make plays and really help get to where we want to be.”