Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs were running mates as wide receivers for five years with the Vikings.
“Diggs, we had such a great connection on the field, off the field … we kind of knew each other like the backs of our hands,” Thielen said Tuesday. “The way we were able to feed off each other in games was something special.”
A duo that combined for 680 catches in those five seasons was broken up in March when Diggs was traded to Buffalo for a package that included the 22nd pick in the NFL draft, a choice used on LSU wideout Justin Jefferson.
“Nothing surprises you in this business,” Thielen said during a Zoom teleconference. “I’ve got to trust that our front office is doing what is best for this team.”
The 20-year-old Jefferson seems likely to replace Diggs across the field from Thielen, although little is certain at the receiver spot. Thielen had his breakthrough season after the Vikings used the 23rd pick in 2016 on Laquon Treadwell, who floundered in the NFL.
Without the NFL locked out during the coronavirus pandemic, Thielen is mentoring Jefferson the new-fashioned way — virtual meetings on laptops. Their entrances into the NFL will be quite different: Thielen barely latched on with the Vikings in 2014 as a free agent; Jefferson is a high draft pick with no worries about being cut.
“Obviously I wouldn’t be in the NFL if this happened in my rookie year,” Thielen said. “It’s kind of crazy to think about those things. But the best athletes, they can adapt. And I think [Jefferson is] one of those guys. He’s taking advantage, I’ve seen him smile and joking around in these virtual meetings, and knows his stuff when they ask him questions. He’s an adaptable person.”
Olabisi Johnson, in his second season, and free agent signing Tajae Sharpe are among the receivers getting bonding time online with Thielen.
“The biggest thing is allowing them to trust me as a person, as a player, to be a resource for them,” he said. “When I’m teaching these guys, when I’m talking to them, I’m really talking to myself, because there’s a lot of things I need to get better at, and usually it’s those things I’m talking about.”
Thielen, 29, played largely on special teams his first two seasons with the Vikings before getting his shot and catching 69 passes for 967 yards in 2016. In the next two seasons, Thielen made the Pro Bowl with a combined 204 catches for 2,649 yards.
While Thielen seemed strongest in the slot, with Diggs lining up outside, Thielen said he’s comfortable anywhere — “I don’t call the plays, I don’t throw the ball, I just run the routes.”
“[Jefferson] is very similar to Diggs’ and [my] role was, they could move us around anywhere, and we felt comfortable wherever they put us,” said Thielen, who was limited to 30 receptions in an injury-marred 2019 season.
The NFL is clearly taking a path that would keep it on its regular schedule. The Vikings would open training camp in late July, begin the exhibition season in mid-August, and open the regular season on Sept. 13 against Green Bay at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Still, there’s uncertainty. As many NFL teams opened their facilities Tuesday (but not to coaches and players), the Vikings’ remained close. And if team workouts resume during the pandemic, they would involve a 90-player roster in constant contact on the playing field.
“I’m trying not to think about those things right now and just trying to focus on the things I can control,” Thielen said. “When we get into those situations, we’ll have to adapt and figure it out on the fly, and that’s what we do as athletes.”
Thielen and his wife, Caitlin, have sons who are 3 and 1, so being a stay-at-home day is a challenge, he said with a laugh.
“My wife and I, when this whole time started happening … we kind of looked at each other and said every single day we’re going to look at the positives in this and not the negatives.
“We’ve been able to have a ton of family time, [which] can be tough with two crazy boys, but what a blessing, and we’ve been looking at it that way.”
On the business side, he has invested in a chain of ETS Performance health clubs and is looking forward to public workout facilities being opened soon — “with every precaution possible.”
Teammates usually get together with quarterback Kirk Cousins in the spring for informal throwing sessions, and that hasn’t happened either.
“When things start to open up a little more and the closer we get to businesses being open and things like that, we’ll be able to make those plans,” Thielen said. “Good news is there’s several guys that are here in Minnesota and I think more and more guys will start to trickle in here so we can start to get as many guys together on the field.”
Thielen seemed eager for football to stay on track to return, with caution.
“When they says it’s OK to be back and the facilities are open for players, I’ll be comfortable with it,” he said. “I’ll leave it up to the professionals for that. When they say we can go back and start practicing, I’ll be there.”
As for how long he’d need to prepare for the season, “Whatever they tell me that we have, whether it’s two weeks, a month, two months, I’m going to be ready for that situation. If they said we could play a game tomorrow, I’d be out there playing.”