Adam Thielen, Vikings WR, is still overlooked after NFL record start

Adam Thielen has to have his coffee. There’s no skipping it.

“It’s his first order of business every day,” Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo tells USA TODAY Sports. “When he walks into the offensive meeting every morning, he makes his coffee.”

Cream and a tad of sugar.

Only then is the wide receiver good to go, equipped to focus on all the details – both grand and granular – of the Vikings’ daily practice plan and weekly game strategy.

Thielen is all about the details. A foot placement here, hip twitch there, burst of acceleration then, change of direction later. The execution must come with the same precision every time.

Without this approach, Thielen – who grew up idolizing fellow Minnesotan Larry Fitzgerald and now emulates techniques that he has learned from training alongside the Arizona Cardinals great during the offseason – likely never would have carved out that role as Kirk Cousins’ most reliable target.

“He’s trusting us to get open … It comes from OTAs, training camp, preseason games and regular season games,” Thielen explained to a scrum of reporters earlier this week “That’s where you gain the confidence of your quarterback. You have to make those plays on a consistent basis and have to have get open no matter where you are, practice or in a game, to have that trust factor.”

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It’s fitting that those finer points would matter so greatly to one of the NFL’s most overlooked stars.

By now, you’ve heard the story: ignored by major colleges out of Detroit Lakes High in Minnesota, he had to settle for Division II’s Minnesota State. Undrafted out of college, he scrapped for a roster spot as a tryout player. He made the gradual climb from practice squad member to rotational guy to unlikely starter as prized free agent signings like Greg Jennings and heralded draft picks like Cordarrelle Patterson failed to pan out.

And now, here he is: The first wide receiver in NFL history to open a season with five straight 100-yard games. He boasts the most catches (47) of any wideout this season and trails only the Houston Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins in yards (589). He’s also on track to shatter last year’s Pro Bowl-garnering totals.

Yet he’s still overlooked and underestimated.

Take a quick poll of defensive backs on what strikes them about Thielen’s game and high praise doesn’t exactly flow.

Some will tell you nothing exceptional stands out. They’ll acknowledge his productivity and apparent work ethic but question just how special he is. Others will tell you the success stems from good route-running and knowing where he needs to be.

Their points aren’t entirely inaccurate. Thielen does possess a tireless work ethic and runs his routes impeccably. And his relationship with Cousins on and off the field has certainly paved the way for his production.

But Thielen never gets the public credit he deserves for his athleticism, the fluidity with which he runs and his ability to snag acrobatic catches. No one mentions his exceptional mind, pinpoint instincts and competitive fire.

All of the above combine to make Thielen the force that he is for the Vikings, the perfect dance partner for explosive young receiver Stefon Diggs.

And, of course, those close to Thielen recognize and appreciate the total package that he brings.

“Smart player, good body control, tracks the ball well, strong hands, fast,” Cousins said in a text message to USA TODAY Sports when asked about Thielen’s attributes. “Great teammate.”

Meanwhile, DeFilippo describes Thielen as one of the most well-rounded pass catchers he has ever encountered.

“He’s so versatile,” DeFilippo said. “He can play outside, he can play inside, he can play the single receiver back-side, where you’re 1-on-1 and normally run with the best corner. … As a coach, if you get creative, you can really help a guy do what he’s good at, and if he’s like Adam and he has the knowledge and versatility, you really can line him up all over the field.”

Versatility is often overlooked when discussing wide receivers. A player will often possess the physical and mental ability that allow them to handle one of the three primary spots. Some can play a second in a pinch. But few have what it takes to thrive in all three.

“A lot of those jobs require different skill sets,” DeFilippo told USA TODAY Sports in a phone conversation after Wednesday morning’s walkthrough. “To be the single receiver on the backside, you’re going to get pressed all the time. You’ve got to have some shiftiness and some strength to you and know you’re going to get held and you’re going to get the bump-and-run. Adam’s got the strength and the savvy to run those routes. And you need patience in the slot. You have to be a precise route runner to play the slot position and to have the vision and the feel for zone in there, and he has that as well.

“It’s hard to find a lot of guys that can do both things because it’s hard to do. One is hard enough, but for Adam to be able to get inside or play outside has really helped our football team a lot.”

The precision with which Thielen runs his routes and his extensive knowledge of passing game concepts, spacing and timing are all integral to his effectiveness. Those traits help him pinpoint openings in zone coverages and also set him up for more yards after the catch, which has helped him record a league-high 31 first downs.

However, despite his success the last two-plus years (967 yards in 2016 and 1,276 last season), Thielen still has yet to garner rave reviews from opponents. But snubs are nothing new to him. They do nothing more than stoke his already intense competitive fire.

He always has a drive to win, whether going up for a 50-50 ball, playing friends in golf (those close to him say he’s quite good and has aspirations of joining the Senior Tour once his NFL career concludes) or joining a pickup basketball game.

And as his journey has shown thus far, more often than not, he finds a way to come out on top – one defied odd, one tiny detail or one precise move at a time.

Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

 

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