For all the criticisms of the Minnesota Vikings offense in 2016, and some of that included the wide receivers, their top two receivers weren’t part of the problem.
Adam Thielen wasn’t expected to become one of the starting receivers, but he continued to progress and work and turned into a starter and, eventually, their top receiver in terms of yards. Thielen finished the season with 967 yards on only 69 catches.
Thielen likely would have reached the 1,000-yard except for two factors. In the first four weeks of the season he was a part-time player on offense, used in about half of the offensive snaps. He became one of the most heavily used skill-position players by Week 5, but in the regular-season finale, with the 1,000-yard goal in sight, Kyle Rudolph was the main target on a 117-yard day and Thielen had only one catch for 7 yards.
Despite falling short of the 1,000-yard mark that has eluded all Vikings receivers since 2009, Thielen didn’t seem to be affected by it after the season or even last month as he continued to work out and wait for his career fate in free agency.
“I’ve never been a numbers guy because there is so many factors that lead into those things. I’ve always been a person that my goals are based on how hard I’m working, if I feel like I’m in the best shape I can possibly be in and busting my tail and doing everything that my trainer is asking me to do,” he said in February. “The biggest goal would be playing time. I guess that would be the closest to a number goal that I have. Last year, it was just being that No. 3 to No. 2 guy and then getting those opportunities and see where that takes me. So this year my goal is to be a starter. I feel like I have the ability and I put up the film that proves I can do that in this league.”
After starting his career in very unconventional NFL fashion, as a tryout guy in a rookie minicamp that worked his way up the ladder, he has worked his way up the pay scale, too. As a restricted free agent this offseason, the Vikings tendered him at a second-round level, then signed him to a three-year extension worth $17 million that could escalate to $27 million with incentives.
There is good reason for that, however, as Thielen proved to be about as reliable as they come. Among wide receivers, his catch rate of 74.2 percent was sixth in the NFL. But more impressive was that he was able to do that with the ball traveling an average of 10.7 yards in the air on his targets, according to ESPN, making him the only receiver among the top in catch rate that exceeded nine air yards per target.
His catch rate was 10 percent above the average of receivers whose targets averaged between 10 and 11 yards.
Despite the impressive numbers in a breakout year – he caught only 20 passes combined in his previous two seasons – Thielen remains motivated and extremely grounded.
“Every year, I just want to add to what I’ve been doing. For me, when I get to this step and have the year I had, now I just want to build on that,” he said. “I have new focus, new goals, and I want to make sure I don’t relax because in this league when you do that, there’s always someone coming for your job. For me, I want to make sure I don’t relax and that I work and train and have the same mentality I’ve had every year I’ve been in the league.”
With $11 million guaranteed in his contract, the former Minnesota State, Mankato product has earned his first big payday and stays in the state where he grew up and played his college ball. But his recent success has him thinking even beyond this contract.
“That’s the goal is to be here long term,” he said before free agency started. “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.”