Adam Thielen doesn't have to wait until Sunday's kickoff to feel the strange vibes.
After spending his first 10 NFL seasons playing for his hometown Vikings, Thielen will be on the Panthers' sideline when the Vikings visit Bank of America Stadium. He's quickly become a team captain and leader for a young Carolina locker room, and his preparation for the Panthers' next foe has brought back memories.
"It's already honestly a little weird watching tape," said Thielen, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who was released by the Vikings this offseason. "It's just crazy to be game planning against guys that were my teammates for a long time."
Thielen's first 6,682 receiving yards (fourth in franchise history) and 55 touchdowns (third) came in Minnesota, where the Detroit Lakes native went to Minnesota State Mankato on a $500 scholarship and signed with the Vikings as a 2013 undrafted tryout.
His former teammates such as safety Harrison Smith, who played all 10 seasons with Thielen in Minnesota, agree — this feels odd.
"It's different to see him in different colors watching him on tape," Smith said. "But he's doing his thing over there."
Thielen, 33, has made an immediate impact in Carolina, where he signed a three-year deal worth up to $25 million this offseason. In March, the Vikings released Thielen to save nearly $6.5 million in salary cap space and get younger at receiver. A month later, the team drafted receiver Jordan Addison in the first round.
Thielen said he's "been thinking" about the matchup since the May schedule release. He was asked whether any part of him wants to show up the Vikings after getting cut.
"Is there a little bit?" he said. "Yeah, maybe, but I'm not the type of person to hold grudges."
The dominant feelings are joy and gratitude, he said, for the former teammates, coaches and staffers he'll get to reconnect with at Sunday's game.
"I can't wait to see those guys," Thielen said. "I'm going to get out extra early for pregame warmups just to make sure I can see all those guys and all the people that have meant so much to me and really just thank them, thank all the people that have been influential in my life. Helping me be not just a good football player, but helping me through life."
The Thielen family — including Adam's wife, Caitlin, and their three children Asher, Hudson and Cora — can't get too far away from the Vikings.
Hudson, 4, is on a flag football team in Charlotte called the Vikings.
Asher, 6, celebrates touchdowns in flag football with the Griddy.
"That should tell you who his favorite player is," Thielen said, referring to former teammate Justin Jefferson.
Thielen scored his second touchdown with the Panthers last week, when Carolina fell to 0-3 with a 37-27 loss to the Seahawks.
Panthers coach Frank Reich got plenty from Thielen, who finished the game with 11 catches for 145 yards and a touchdown. Thielen had an instant connection with Panthers quarterback Andy Dalton, who could start against the Vikings if rookie Bryce Young, the No. 1 overall draft pick, remains sidelined because of an ankle injury. Young did practice Wednesday, however.
Reich lauded Thielen, who was voted as a team captain this summer by his new Panthers teammates.
"He walks in the door," Reich told Charlotte reporters on Wednesday, "and this guy has instantaneous respect and credibility. You talk to him for 30 seconds and you know he has the 'it factor'. … And on a young team where there's a lot of transition, he's exactly what you need."
In 2018, quarterback Kirk Cousins knew soon after arriving at TCO Performance Center that he had two star receivers in Stefon Diggs and Thielen, who was named to his first Pro Bowl after a 1,276-yard season the year before.
But even then, Cousins said he would have overlooked Thielen based on his path — undrafted from a Division-II program, one 1,000-yard season — if not for the advice of then-quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski.
Before playing with Thielen, Cousins recalled Stefanski, now the Browns head coach, telling him Thielen had the speed and talent to be a No. 1 receiver.
"I probably wouldn't have given him credit that he deserved," Cousins said, "because I would've been like everybody else who judged the book by its cover looking at his bio."
Cousins and Thielen had adjacent lockers during their five years together in Minnesota, where their families also grew close.
"He's a great player," Cousins said. "I was the beneficiary of that for many years and I know that Carolina is excited to have him. There's going to be a lot of good football left in him. We've got to contain him. … Sunday, obviously, we'll have different interests for the first time in six years."
After a Panthers walkthrough Wednesday morning, Thielen said he was telling Carolina players about how well Vikings fans travel to road games.
"I'm sure there will be a lot of Vikings fans here," Thielen said, "and a lot of 19 jerseys in the stands."