MANKATO – Perhaps the most surprising thing in Adam Thielen’s case is he doesn’t seem intimidated. Not one bit.
Maybe it’s because he’s on familiar turf, literally. Thielen spent five seasons practicing with his Minnesota State Mankato teammates on these same fields next to Blakeslee Stadium. So he feels at home, even though the stakes have changed. A year ago, his Division II football career was about to reach critical mass. These days, he is an undrafted rookie trying to snare one of the final spots on the Vikings roster as a sneaky-fast wide receiver with good hands.
No pressure, right? Apparently not.
“It feels like just another football camp,” Thielen said after a recent practice. “I feel honored to be a part of this, but I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.”
He certainly has taken an end-around approach to getting here. A native of Detroit Lakes, Minn., Thielen was a talented and well-rounded high school athlete, but he wasn’t heavily recruited, even at the Division II level. But then, he was a bit shorter than his current height, 6-2, and a lot lighter than 210 pounds. “I was tiny,” he said. “I was like, 155 pounds.”
He was a productive player in a good program for his first three seasons with the Mavericks. But he wasn’t the kind of guy who seemed certain to get an NFL shot. That started to change last fall.
Playing on a team that eventually reached the Division II national semifinals, a senior on a receiving corps filled with young players, Thielen’s numbers took off for the 13-1 Mavericks.
“He was the guy, and everybody we played knew it,” Mavericks coach Aaron Keen said. “Even so, nobody could really stop him. He found a way.”
A very good season went to another level in the team’s seventh game, against Southwest Minnesota State. With the Mavericks dDown by 14 points late in the fourth quarter, Thielen made five catches for 77 yards in two late drives that tied the score. His TD catch with 39 seconds left forced overtime, and the Mavericks eventually won.
But even after finishing the season with 74 catches for 1,176 yards and eight scores — which put him in the top three in Mavericks history in career catches (198), receiving yards (2,802) and receiving TDs (20) — Thielen wasn’t attracting much NFL interest.
Not invited to the NFL predraft combine, Thielen instead went to a regional combine in Chicago. He did well enough there to be invited to a super regional combine in Dallas, where Thielen surprised everybody — except himself — by running the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds.
“That’s when I heard from teams,” Thielen said. “That’s when, I think, I popped onto the radar.”
Undrafted, Thielen was invited to the Vikings’ rookie minicamp. He performed well enough to get a contract to come to training camp in July. And that brought him back to Mankato.
When he was growing up, Thielen’s favorite player was Cris Carter; he spent hours trying to re-create Carter’s sideline catches in his back yard. In college, Thielen regularly attended Vikings training camp practices. He would watch the receivers do drills, then practice the same things on his own.
Now he is trying to show the Vikings he belongs.
“I need to show ’em that I’m an overall good football player,” Thielen said. “That I can play on special teams. That I’m a hard worker. That I’ll do anything they need me to do. And that I can be consistently good, every day, in practice.”
Making the final roster is a tall order, especially if the Vikings keep only five wide receivers. Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jerome Simpson and Jarius Wright are locks. That leaves Thielen competing with players such as Stephen Burton and Joe Webb for the final spot or spots.
Still, Thielen has shown some talent early in camp, including going up high for one catch.
“We have seen some flashes from Adam,” Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. “He makes some spectacular catches. We have seen some good things.”
It would appear Thielen has a good chance, at the very least, of landing a spot on the team’s practice squad if he doesn’t make the roster.
“It’s too early to determine right now,” receivers coach George Stewart said. “But sometimes that dark horse comes from nowhere and wins the Kentucky Derby. He has the opportunity be a player in this league.”