There are moments, in Adam Thielen’s dizzying climb from overlooked prospect to practice squad player to special teams standout to Pro Bowler, that the Vikings wide receiver will allow himself to peer over the edge of the mountain and think back to how easy it could have been for none of this to happen.
“When I look back at it, I’m actually more nervous now than I was in the moment [at the Vikings’ 2013 rookie camp], ” Thielen said. “Now I realize, [if] two plays [go] differently — I drop a ball instead of making a diving catch or something like that — I don’t get the opportunity. In the moment, I was just playing football, and I was probably a little naive to what the opportunity actually was.”
It wasn’t that Thielen couldn’t play. He was the receiver at Detroit Lakes who made a play whenever a run-first offense needed one, the young wideout at Minnesota State Mankato who’d somehow lead the team in catches every week, even when the game plan wasn’t designed to feed him the ball. But the system isn’t built to keep players like Thielen from falling through the cracks.
His hometown, 200 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, wasn’t the kind of place scouts were going to visit by happenstance. Born Aug. 22, 1990, Thielen graduated from Detroit Lakes in 2008 as a 17-year-old who “weighed 150, 160 pounds dripping wet,” according to his former high school coach, Flint Motschenbacher.
And while Thielen relished shifting from football to basketball to golf and baseball as the seasons changed, he was left with little time to undertake a strength program that could help him develop into the kind of physical specimen that might get the benefit of the doubt by NFL decisionmakers.
Asked how Thielen the Vikings receiver would evaluate Thielen the college prospect, the 27-year-old laughed and said, “I’d say [there was] a lot of work to do.
“I think I was pretty skilled as far as being able to run routes pretty well — not great, but good enough — and I had good ball skills and things like that. But I was pretty lengthy, and pretty weak, and probably not as fluid as I needed to be. It was kind of a progression.”
Until two weeks before his first Mavericks camp started, Thielen said, he didn’t know if he was going to play football, basketball or golf in college. Once he arrived in Mankato, he began the process of elbowing his way through every obstacle — from strength training to lack of exposure to talent evaluators — that could hinder his future in football.
The Lakeville gym he opened in 2016 with trainer Ryan Engelbert, who’d helped prepare Thielen for the NFL, was created in part to help kids who might otherwise get lost in the sea that is the imperfect scouting system of professional and major college sports.
“I really envy some of these kids that are coming into the gym and working out,” Thielen said. “I wish I would have had that opportunity. I think it really would have helped me. That’s kind of why I have such a passion for it.”
‘Didn’t know he was that fast’
As a young player, Thielen showed primitive signs of the skills Vikings fans have come to love. Motschenbacher remembered the acrobatic catches Thielen made whenever the Lakers needed him.
“He probably had 50, 60 catches in high school, and almost half of them probably went for touchdowns,” Motschenbacher said.
And when Aaron Keen first became the MSU Mankato offensive coordinator in 2011, he was struck by a junior whose route-running skills always seemed to have quarterbacks looking for him.
“The first year, we had kind of a stable of receivers,” said Keen, who is now the offensive coordinator at Eastern Michigan. “The impression I got when I came in was, we’re really trying to feed the ball to some of the other guys on the roster. And then you would go through the stats at the end of the game, and he was always the leading receiver.
“When he was with me, he spent a lot of time in meetings with quarterbacks. He understood quarterback read progressions, what he should be looking at on plays. He knew where to settle down in zones and how to get the ball — which I can still see him doing.”
Still, after Thielen caught 74 passes for 1,176 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior, his pro prospects were murky. The Mavericks shared one strength and conditioning coach across their athletic department, meaning the school’s Division I hockey program was likely to command more attention than a senior harboring a flickering NFL dream. He was denied an invitation to the University of Minnesota pro day. When Thielen began researching regional combines, he’d never run a 40-yard dash. Since he hadn’t run track, he didn’t know the first thing about starting a sprint race.
Tommy Langford, Thielen’s former teammate in Mankato, became the receiver’s first trainer before Thielen connected with Engelbert. The pair worked on Thielen’s starts in the 40, drilling his form to maximize his explosiveness in his first 10 yards.
When Thielen ran a 4.45-second 40 at a regional combine in Chicago, even Keen was surprised.
“I guess I didn’t know he was that fast,” Keen said. “I’m almost embarrassed to say that. But now I watch him run against NFL competition, he’s not taking a back seat to anybody. That’s a testament to the work he’s done.”
The 40-yard dash, for better or worse, seems to be the golden ticket for wide receivers looking to make a name for themselves before the draft. It’s overrated, Thielen said, but it’s also something of a necessary evil.
“You have to have some kind of measurement of speed,” he said. “But yeah, sometimes people get overlooked because of their 40 times, and sometimes people are overhyped because of their 40 times. At some point, you’ve got to be a football player.”
Camp tryout strikes gold
Even after his rookie combine performance, Thielen looked as if he might not get a shot. He had lined up a job selling supplies at Patterson Dental, while hoping he’d get a tryout somewhere. Keen kept calling Vikings scout Mike Sholiton, whom he’d coached at Washington University, to make Thielen’s case.
All it yielded was a rookie camp tryout with the Vikings; it turned out that was all Thielen needed. The Vikings released Eastern Washington receiver Nicholas Edwards, whom they’d signed as an undrafted free agent, to make room for Thielen.
“The whole time, I’m holding a graduate assistant position open for him, because I would have loved to have him coaching our receivers,” Keen said. “I think he realized at the time just what a rarity it is [to be signed after a rookie camp tryout].”
If Thielen’s path from small-town Minnesota to the core of the Vikings roster can be mimicked, Brandon Zylstra will be the one to try.
The New London-Spicer graduate was a tight end at Concordia (Moorhead) before playing two years as a receiver for the Edmonton Eskimos and leading the CFL with 1,687 yards on 100 catches last season. He signed a reserve/futures deal with the Vikings that included significantly more guaranteed money than most CFL players receive.
Zylstra shares an agent, Blake Baratz, with Thielen, and plans to train with him this spring.
“I’m hoping we can be together, so I can pick his brain a little more,” Zylstra said. “It’s really just encouraging, for somebody to prove it can be done. It really doesn’t matter where you come from.”
It probably does, if the NFL’s player procurement machine is viewed as a whole. But it didn’t for Thielen in his remarkable journey into pro football.