The crowd kept growing. Receiver Jarius Wright needed some polite requests just to get past the throng to his locker. It’s a Monday after a Vikings victory. Adam Thielen, stationed nearby, must be talking.
They will have to wait until Thursday to talk to the Vikings’ other top receiver, Stefon Diggs, who has his own once-a-week session. So reporters don’t need to worry about covering both receivers at once.
Defenses aren’t afforded such comfort against this Vikings receiving duo, currently staking its claim as the NFL’s best. Both players were overlooked for their own reasons: Thielen was an undrafted Division II player at Minnesota State Mankato; Diggs was a five-star recruit turned fifth-round pick by way of injuries and Maryland’s quarterback parade.
They have converged in Minnesota to form a balancing act, harmonizing a Case Keenum-led offense with game-breaking precision and unique skills that create mismatches for tough, precious yards so fleeting for recent Vikings passing attacks.
“The Yin and the Yang, they feed off of each other,” receivers coach Darrell Hazell said this week. “Adam is more vocal in the schemes of things, where Stefon is the energy of the group and drags them along in practice. They bring everybody else with them.”
Only one NFL receiver duo, Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster of the Pittsburgh Steelers, entered Week 11 with more yards (1,403) than the 1,293 compiled by Thielen and Diggs (who has missed two games because of a groin injury). Thielen and Diggs are fifth among receiver pairs with 87 receptions.
They don’t talk about where they rank among NFL duos, Diggs says.
“We just go out and try to work and get on each other’s behind when we have to,” he said.
Which receiver gets on the other more?
“Take a wild guess,” Diggs said with a smirk.
Thielen, third in the league with 793 receiving yards and on track to become the franchise’s first 1,000-yard receiver in eight years, is the tactician. As running back Dalvin Cook shouted at Thielen’s locker during a recent media scrum: “It’s not magic, it’s hard work!” Thielen absorbs defensive tendencies and debates with Hazell, hired this offseason, about things such as the best way to break on a corner route.
“He had done it differently,” Hazell said of one of their early encounters. “So we had to come to terms on how to get to that ‘seven’ [corner] route.”
Diggs is the smooth and sudden threat capable of putting up 13-catch games filled with yards after the catch as a possession receiver or the eight-catch, 173-yard outing as a deep threat against Tampa Bay in September. His feet are quick and movements subtle, making for the refined route runner who blew past Washington’s Josh Norman, one of the NFL’s highest-paid cornerbacks, on a double move for a 51-yard catch last week.
“Diggs is very explosive before and after the catch,” Hazell said.
Together, they are the ultimate security blanket for whichever Vikings quarterback starts. Thielen’s two drops are among the NFL’s fewest. And they are tied for the NFL’s most effective deep threat, catching three of every five long balls thrown their way this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
As the yards pile up, so does the attention from defenses. However, a team has yet to shadow either Diggs or Thielen with its top cornerback throughout a game. Will it happen Sunday? That has been a discussion in the receivers room this week as the Vikings face the Rams and cornerback Trumaine Johnson, who follows receivers for Los Angeles.
“You want that,” Diggs said. “If you get that, it’s obviously a lot of respect.”
Perhaps neither has seen a shadow because the Vikings, recently desperate for one vertical weapon, have developed two of the NFL’s best to lead a strong supporting cast.
“I think it’s tough for a defensive player because they have to bring it on every play,” Thielen said. “They don’t know where the ball is going to go. They can’t really relax on anybody on our offense.”