EAGAN, Minnesota — The quarterback was in trouble. During a red-zone drill early in training camp, Kirk Cousins stepped up in the pocket as the Minnesota Vikings’ pass rush raged. With a split second left before being sacked, Cousins knew where to look. Receiver Adam Thielen sprinted into the back of the end zone, one step ahead of cornerback Harrison Hand.
As he has done so often in recent seasons, Cousins flipped the ball in the direction of Thielen, who caught it in stride for a touchdown. The improvised connection recalled Thielen’s wild career turn since the arrival of teammate Justin Jefferson in 2020.
Thielen’s overall goals per game understandably dropped during that span, but his point totals soared. Only two NFL receivers have caught more touchdown passes than Thielen (24) since the start of the 2020 season: Davante Adams (29) for the Green Bay Packers and Mike Evans (27) for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The push nearly matched Thielen’s goal tallies in his first six seasons combined (25).
As a result, he amassed a fantastic 312.2 points in non-PPR scoring — No. 9 overall among receivers — even though he ranks No. 29 in total field goals (199). As Jefferson has become the NFL’s best young receiver, Thielen has found a niche that fits perfectly with the skills he’s honed over time.
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) August 2, 2022
“He’s always been strong with football,” Cousins said. “He’s got great natural hands, great body control and he’s playing big. He’s playing big and hard, and he’s running big and hard. It shows in the red zone, tight windows and tight coverage. .”
During that same time frame, in fact, Thielen ranked No. 3 in the NFL for Catch Rate vs. Expectations, an NFL Next Gen Stats analysis of a player’s ability to make low catches. probability. But as odd as it may sound, it’s never safe to assume that a veteran player’s success will survive a coaching transition.
Thielen, for his part, turns 32 later this month. After appearing in every game in each of his first five NFL seasons, he’s missed 11 to injury in the past three. His contract, meanwhile, has no fully guaranteed money left after this season.
And as Jefferson reaches the threshold of stardom, No. 3 wide receiver KJ Osborn hosts a breakout training camp himself. Tight end Irv Smith Jr.’s recent thumb surgery hasn’t dampened the excitement over his impending contribution, giving Cousins another mouth to feed. But new coach Kevin O’Connell has embraced the ways Thielen can excel in his scheme – in the red zone, in particular – and Thielen hasn’t been shy about pointing out plays that worked well or were executed in situations. special in the past. If training camp practices are any indication, the Vikings are doing everything they can to preserve the Cousins-Thielen connection.
“The coolest part about it is the comments,” O’Connell said. “He’s able to say to me, ‘I know we train this like this, but have you thought about that road rod or that road top? and that’s when sometimes you’re like, ‘Thank God we have players like that. Because what you said is better than what I said.’ Let’s do it that way. Other times we’ll go my way. Either way, we’re having this conversation. “
At the peak of his career, producing back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2017 and 2018, Thielen saw 9.16 targets per game. Since the start of the 2020 season, this number has decreased by around 22% (7.13).
His red zone targets, however, have actually increased slightly from 1.06 in 2017-18 to 1.18 in 2020-21 – a target that O’Connell, Cousins and Thielen are all working to preserve this summer.
Thielen was initially stunned after encountering O’Connell’s process versus results approach to installing and revising his scheme, but the adjustment led to rapid progress.
“Sometimes it’s almost awkward,” Thielen said. “You’re like, ‘Isn’t he going to tear us apart? What’s going on here?’ And that has nothing to do with the old coaching staff that we had here. That’s how it’s been my whole life, whether it’s high school, college, freshman in the NFL when I had a different coach. It’s different, but it’s exciting because it’s like now we can go out there and we can teach. We can learn. Even if we do some things wrong and make mistakes mental thoughts, it’s like, ‘Hey, that wasn’t OK, but let’s focus on the process.'”
Either way, Thielen knows he’s at the end of his career. In 2021, for example, you could count the number of receivers on the one hand who were 32 or older and caught more than 40 passes: Cole Beasley, AJ Green, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. None of them caught more than four touchdowns.
“I’m not 10 years into my career anymore, so yeah, I think there’s a sense of urgency,” Thielen said. “We have a really talented squad. We have a great culture. We have great coaching. But at the end of the day, you don’t want to lose sight of the day-to-day mindset, that this coaching staff , this culture, has created.”