Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen has accomplished enough in his pro career that it’s time to move past his charming back story and ask a serious question: Is he the best wide receiver in the NFL?
First take: Michael Rand
Well, I’m the one who dreamed up this question, and I’m the first to admit there is a lot of “noise” — data and other information that isn’t useful — that could cloud our thinking.
On one hand, there are still qualifiers used when talking about Thielen — that he’s really good for a guy who came from Division II, for example. On the other hand, it’s also dangerous to look at his NFL-record eight consecutive 100-yard games to start the year or the record-setting reception pace he’s on and draw too many hard conclusions.
Instead, we can start here: Thielen is the No. 1-graded receiver this year by Pro Football Focus, which takes into consideration various metrics. He also has the second-most yards after catch (277) as a receiver this year and is graded as having the sixth-best hands among wideouts.
Starting there, and remembering he was an All-Pro last season, you can start to build a case that he’s flat-out better than any other NFL receiver.
Columnist Chip Scoggins: I’m glad people have moved past the qualifiers because Thielen absolutely deserves to be in this conversation.
If we go strictly by statistics, then yes, he’s producing better than any wide receiver in the NFL. He’s making the game look easy right now.
But if you tell me that I get to pick one wide receiver to start a team with, it would be hard for me to pass up Antonio Brown or Julio Jones. Is that a fair barometer, Michael?
Rand: That’s a totally fair standard, and both of those receivers are certainly in the discussion. They are more accomplished and have major edges in career “counting numbers.”
It might depend on how we define “best.” What about if we used this standard: It’s fourth-and-8, your team is down two points, and you have the ball at midfield with 1:30 left on the clock in the Super Bowl. A first down means you extend the drive and have a chance to move into field-goal range to win. A defensive stop means you lose. Which receiver do you trust the most to get you that first down?
I think I would pick Thielen in that case. He does lead the NFL in catches for first downs this season (49), and nobody else is within 10 of him.
If you needed a longer gain? Thielen again is a good pick. He’s tied for fourth in catches of more than 20 yards (12), leading Jones (nine) and Brown (seven) in that category.
Scoggins: Using that standard, I’d go with Thielen as well. Here’s why: One, he’s such a precise route runner. Maybe the best route runner in the league. It’s practically guaranteed that he would get open but also know where the first-down marker is and make sure that he’s beyond it.
Two, how many difficult catches in traffic have we seen Thielen make this season? Whether it was that circus-catch touchdown in Green Bay or reaching behind his defender’s head against the Saints, he somehow makes catches with a high degree of difficulty look routine.
Rand: He’s in the conversation, at least. Maybe the safer argument is this: Thielen and Stefon Diggs have eclipsed every other wide receiver duo in the NFL.
Final word: Scoggins
Yes, they belong at the top of that list. Two top-10 receivers playing at a high level with a quarterback who is both accurate and aggressive in throwing to them in tight spots is a tough combination to beat.
More Rand: startribune.com/RandBall
More North Score: startribune.com/NorthScore