In 2013, when the Minnesota Vikingss signed Mankato State wide receiver Adam Thielen to a contract, many thought it was little more than a gimmick to bring a little local interest to the table for training camp. He was a feel-good story – a Division II overachiever who earned his long shot to make the 53-man roster.
Thielen didn’t make the final cuts in 2013, but the Vikings didn’t just bring in Thielen as some sort of publicity stunt. He was re-signed to the practice squad and told that, if he continued to work hard, he would get his opportunity to make the team.
Over the last two years, Thielen has been a core special teams player and, when given the opportunity, showed he could make plays – catching just about every pass thrown his way, regardless of whether it was an accurate pass of not.
His role has expanded significantly, to the point that he was on the field for more than half of the plays the Vikings ran in the season opener at Tennessee, catching four passes for 54 yards and seemingly vaulting past Jarius Wright and Laquon Treadwell on the depth chart.
Thielen isn’t taking his increased responsibilities lightly, because he’s trying to make the most of his spike in playing time.
“I’m definitely more comfortable every day,” Thielen said. “The more opportunities I get in games the more comfortable I get and the more confidence I get. I just want to keep getting better every day.”
The biggest difference Thielen sees now is that, while he has earned his stripes as a core special teams player, he has something valuable to contribute to the offense.
He hasn’t changed how he gets himself ready for games. All that has changed is the confidence level the coaching staff has in him that he can contribute to help the team win.
“It hasn’t really changed how I prepare,” Thielen said. “The only difference is the amount of opportunities I’ve had to play in the offense. In previous years, I prepared like I was going to be playing a lot more than I did because I wanted to be ready when I would get the chance because you never what’s going to happen on game day. You have to prepare that way to be successful in this league.”
While Thielen has become much more visible on the offense, he knows that his bread and butter remains his ability on special teams. That is what got him on the 53-man roster and it is what has kept him there.
He is loving the added chance to prove he can be a bigger help to the team winning than he was his first three seasons, but he never loses sight of what got him on the team – being technically sound and working harder than the guys around him.
“I take pride in whatever position I play on the field,” Thielen said. “Any time I get on the field, whether it’s with the offense or on special teams, I’m going to make sure I make the most of it and continue to grow as a player.”
The biggest difference Thielen is seeing this year is that he isn’t merely a niche third-down guy who comes in as a third or fourth receiver on obvious passing downs. He’s being asked to run a full route tree, block on running plays and do all the little things that starting wide receivers do.
From his perspective, his comfort level has increased exponentially because he is out on the field so much more and he feels more natural with his role in the offense.
“You definitely get a better flow for the game,” Thielen said. “It’s never easy to wind it up for a couple of plays here or there and then go back out. When you’re consistently out there, you get a better feel for the game and what the other guys are doing. It’s a lot more fun and makes it easier as you go.”
Will there come a time when defensive coordinators start game-planning specifically for Thielen? He thinks that may be a bit of a stretch, but he is already learning that he is drawing more attention on third downs as he continues to become a valued target when the team needs to move the sticks and keep drives alive.
“I don’t know if anyone is game-planning against me, but I’m just trying to get better,” Thielen said.
Who knows? If he keeps up what he’s been showing during the preseason and in Week 1, opposing defenses won’t be able to ignore him as just another guy in the Vikings receiver corps.