From the start, it was a longshot for the Division II receiver that grew up in Detroit Lakes and played college ball at Minnesota State in Mankato, home of Vikings training camp. Yet, through every step of the process, Thielen proved his worth and escalated his value.
The first big payback from those efforts and overcoming of odds could arrive in the coming weeks.
Thielen ascended from a practice-squad player as a rookie in 2013 to special teams player of the year in 2015 (as voted by his teammates) to starting receiver and leading yardage-gainer in 2016. The accumulation of accomplishments has helped put him in an advantageous position as he is about to become a restricted free agent.
“Absolutely. Being able to put the film out there that I did and prove that I can be a starter in this league, it’s put me in a good situation,” he said. “Now I’m just hoping that things can work out and I can be respected in that type of way because I feel like I’ve proved it. Hopefully I can stay here long term and be respected with the way they handled me.”
He made just two starts in 2015, but last year Thielen worked his way into leading the Minnesota Vikings in receiving yards (967) while starting 10 games.
And now after three seasons in the NFL, he is hoping for a restricted tender that rewards his past efforts as he keeps in mind bigger goals for his future. A second-round tender that likely would pay him more than four times his $600,000 salary from last year might be forthcoming, but at this point he isn’t really sure where things stand.
“I really don’t know, to be honest, and I don’t think [the Vikings] really know or they haven’t communicated that to us. I’m sure they know, but I don’t know,” he said. “I believe they can still work something out before that if they want to, so there’s a lot that goes into it and it’s a pretty complex deal. For me, I’m just leaving that to my agent and let me go just work and focus on training and becoming the best football player I can.”
There are plenty of factors that will help shape the Vikings’ decision at the receiver position. Stefon Diggs returns as a starter. Cordarrelle Patterson is an unrestricted free agent. Charles Johnson, like Thielen, is a restricted free agent. And Laquon Treadwell didn’t make much of an impact (only one catch) as rookie.
Of the Vikings’ pending free agents, Thielen would seem the most likely to return, or at least be tendered at a level that would help ensure his return.
It’s also possible the Vikings could try to work out a long-term deal before or after a decision would have to be made on the level of his restricted free-agent tender. A tender must be issued by March 9 if the Vikings want to retain the right of first refusal, which they certainly will.
“If it works out and they give us the deal that’s in our ballpark and where we want to be, absolutely. That’s the goal is to be here long term,” he said. “This is my team, I love this team. I’ve put a lot of time and effort to help this football team win games and I’d love to be here. But at the same time I want to be respected for what I’ve done and I feel like I’ve proven that I’m a starter in this league so I want to be respected in that way.”
Thielen said he is “intrigued” with the business side of football and has been keeping informed of the conversations between his agent and the Vikings. But he also realizes it has to be a deal palatable for both sides.
“Obviously I know it’s a business on both sides. Not everybody is going to agree. It’s just trying to find that number that really helps both sides,” he said.
“It’s an interesting deal. There’s not a lot that I can control. For me, I’m just busting my tail in the weight room and trying to become the best football player I can be. Obviously I’d like to be here long-term, but that’s really not in my control. For me, it’s just going about my business and let my agent earn his money.”
Last year, Thielen was an exclusive-rights free agent, meaning if the Vikings wanted him all they had to do was issue him a qualifying offer. This year, if no multi-year deal is worked out before tenders on restricted free agents are due, the level of his tender will not only determine his salary but also set the level of a draft pick that another team would have to give up if they signed him to an offer sheet that the Vikings declined to match.
“It’s a different situation. Other years, I’ve gone into this time of year where I don’t know what’s going to happen and it’s kind of the same thing in a different scenario,” he said.
The odds seem very good that Thielen will return for at least one more year, but being a local product has him hoping for a long career that continues to develop in Minnesota.
“You look at guys like Chad Greenway and [Brian Robison] and guys like that that have been here their whole career or other guys from other teams that were there their whole career, there’s something special about that,” Thielen said. “It would be great to have a sendoff someday like Greenway did. There’s something special about that. It doesn’t happen very much nowadays, but it would be great. I love the team. I put a lot of effort and sweat and grinded a lot for this team so I hope to be back.”