The timeline of Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen reads like this: Non-Combine invite (regional Combine participant only), undrafted, given a tryout (not even a priority UDFA signing), signed, cut the last week of camp, practice squad season, Special Teams Player of the Week, Special Teams Player of the Year, the NFL’s Unsung Hero of the Year, starting wide receiver, one of the top slot players in the NFL.
Now we’re here in 2020 with Thielen as the No. 1 wide receiver on the Vikings.
That was all across Thielen’s seven seasons in the league, but the main takeaway is that at no point has Thielen’s career ever been on a downward trajectory. Each season he was given more responsibility, whether that was with special teams work, as a substitute wideout, as a starting wideout, as a slot player, and as an outside receiver.
But this upcoming season will surely be his most important yet. The question is: can you count on him to reach and sustain a level of success at his most challenging spot yet—the spot where it’s all him?
With no Stefon Diggs, the Vikings are likely going to run their passing attack through Thielen and his versatility. Make no mistake, running back Dalvin Cook will still be a focal point of the Vikings offense. Even with previous play-caller Kevin Stefanski no longer there, that part won’t change. The Vikings will still likely be play-action heavy.
Gary Kubiak is the man now calling the shots as the play-caller and offensive coordinator in Minnesota, and with him will come a change in tendencies. Though Kubiak does like to use two-tight end sets, and the Vikings have two suitable ones in Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr., that shouldn’t take away from Thielen being the first place quarterback Kirk Cousins looks when he’s eyeing a receiver.
But just where will Cousins’ eyes land when he does seek out Thielen? A more straightforward way to ask that question would be: where will Thielen align the most as a receiver this upcoming season? And an even more microscopic theme of such a question would be how much will Thielen line up in the slot now that Diggs is gone?
Let’s take a look at some stats.
According to Pro Football Focus, over the course of his career, the more time Thielen has been given in the slot, the more he has given back to the offense. From 2014-2018, Thielen saw more routes from the slot in every single season. Now, some of that was natural since he was playing more, but that was part of what proved to be worth it.
Thielen’s two most successful years of his career have been 2017 and 2018. In 2017, Thielen saw 309 routes from the slot (48.2 percent of his total routes). For the season, Thielen saw 142 targets for 91 catches (a catch percentage of 64.1) with 1,274 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns.
In 2018, as those slot numbers increased (373 routes from the slot), so did Thielen’s success. That next season, Thielen saw 153 targets for 113 receptions (a catch percentage of 73.9) with 1,373 receiving yards and most importantly nine receiving touchdowns.
2019 was a tough year to judge. Per PFF, Thielen saw just 155 snaps from the slot, but he only played in 10 games due to a mid-season hamstring injury. If you take the 369 snaps Thielen took as an outside receiver, that slot percentage is only 42 percent, lower than both 2017 and 2018. His yards per catch, yards per game, and catch percentages were lower in 2019, the season in which he played the lowest slot ratio.
The main takeaway here feels like even without Diggs and with Thielen as the “No. 1”, Thielen should still see plenty of slot work.
He should also see plenty of deep passes. Per Dustin Baker of FanSided, since 2016, Michael Thomas has 21 receptions of 30 yards or more. Adam Thielen has 23. Per Tanishka Mhaskar of Vikings Nation, Thielen had a success rate of 50 percent when going deep, with high success (best on the team for the number of deep targets) when targeted over the middle and to the right side of the field (60 percent and 56 percent).
Thielen’s career has been one of adapting and succeeding. He’s done it for years, and I wouldn’t be the one to bet against him doing it again. Even though he’ll be the player the defense focuses on the most, even with rookie Justin Jefferson in the fold, if the Vikings continue to play Thielen plenty in the slot and continue to send him deep, history tells us they will be rewarded for it.