If you aren’t already, it’s time to start calling Adam Thielen what he is: one of the best wide receivers in the NFL.
The 2014 undrafted free agent currently leads the league in receptions with 93, ranks second behind Julio Jones in receiving yards with 1,138 and is tied for fifth with eight touchdown catches, including one in seven of the Minnesota Vikings’ last eight games.
He’ll pose a major challenge this Sunday to a New England Patriots’ defense that — save for Tyreek Hill’s second-half eruption in Week 6 and Corey Davis’ beatdown of Stephon Gilmore in Week 10 — has largely succeeded in shutting down opponents’ No. 1 targets this season.
After having his season-opening streak of eight consecutive 100-yard receiving efforts broken in Week 9, Thielen turned in two relatively pedestrian performances before breaking back out with eight catches on nine targets for 125 yards and a touchdown against Green Bay.
All this has come after the Minnesota State product caught 69 passes for 967 yards and five touchdowns in 2016 and 91 for 1,276 and five scores last season. He outgrew the “overachieving underdog” label long ago. These days, he’s a bona fide superstar.
“He does everything well,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday. “He’s got good size. He can get to a lot of balls with his length. He has very good hands. He’s quick for a taller player, and his length and the radius that he can catch the ball in is good, and he has the hands to extend and catch it. But for a taller guy, he’s quick and he’s able to create separation.”
Who covers Thielen when the Vikings visit Gillette Stadium this weekend? Good question. He has above-average size at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds but lines up in the slot on more than half of his snaps (51.2 percent, per Pro Football Focus), which creates matchup problems for many teams and often allows him to feast on inferior cornerbacks.
Thielen is a superb route-runner, and he also has the body control, concentration, and athleticism necessary to make plays like this:
Would the Patriots trust someone like Jonathan Jones or Duke Dawson — the rookie slot corner who could make his NFL debut Sunday — to stick with Thielen when he moves inside? Or would Gilmore or Jason McCourty shift into the slot on those occasions?
“He’s a tough matchup for a smaller corner in terms of size,” Belichick said, “and he’s a tough matchup for a bigger corner in terms of the quickness that he has. He’s also a good runner after the catch, so he can take a shorter pass and turn it into a sizeable gain with his size and running ability after the catch. He plays inside, he plays outside. They move him around.”
And let’s not forget about Thielen’s running mate. He and the 6-foot, 191-pound Stefon Diggs form arguably the NFL’s top receiver duo, with Diggs boasting more catches (79) and receiving yards (790) than any Patriots player this season and matching James White in receiving touchdowns (six).
The Vikings also have a two-time Pro Bowler at tight end in Kyle Rudolph and a handsomely paid quarterback in Kirk Cousins who ranks in the top 10 in most passing categories.
“They make a lot of big plays,” Belichick said. “They make a lot of big plays down the field, which is a problem but then they make a lot of intermediate and catch-and-run plays. Especially Diggs — he’s very good with the ball in his hands. When you get to third down and red area, the critical possession and scoring situation plays, that’s a problem, too.”
Thumbnail photo via Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports Images