Adam Thielen is posting numbers that haven’t been seen from a Vikings receiver since the best years of Randy Moss’ career in Minnesota.
In Sunday’s 38-30 victory over Washington, Thielen finished with the second-highest single-game yardage of his career, 166 yards on eight receptions. He has 793 receiving yards this season, which is the fourth-highest total in Vikings history through nine games.
The best mark through nine games is Moss’ 2003 season, when he was 26 and had 998 yards.
In second place is Moss’ 2000 season, when he was 23 and had 816 yards. In third place is Jake Reed in 1996, when he had 805 receiving yards through nine games and turned 29 in September of that season.
Still, none of those players is as surprising as Thielen, 27. Even Reed, who played at Grambling State, was a third-round pick. Thielen went undrafted out of Division II Minnesota State Mankato.
He was asked if he ever thought he would be having pro games like he had on Sunday.
“I don’t know. I never really think about stats and things like that,” Thielen said. “As long as we win the game and I’m doing everything I can to help the team, that is all that matters.”
Thielen’s current mark of 88.1 receiving yards per game ranks fourth in Vikings history for qualified receivers. The top three spots are occupied by Moss — who averaged 102.0 yards over the entire 2003 season, 89.8 yards in 2000 and 88.3 yards in 1999.
Incredibly, Hall of Famer Cris Carter’s highest yards-per-game average in his career was 85.7 in 1995 — which ranks fifth in Vikings history.
Thielen has a chance to move up in the Vikings record books if he can keep producing. He has a tremendous shot to become the first Viking since Sidney Rice in 2009 (1,312 yards) to record 1,000 or more receiving yards in a season. Thielen needs to average only 30 receiving yards per game over the final seven regular-season games to reach that mark.
Thielen was asked what helped him continue to improve from his breakout 2016 season, when he had 69 receptions for 967 yards.
“I think just keeping the same approach I have always kept my whole career,” he said. “Going from last year to this year is the same approach to the offseason, and then each week it’s the same approach. Taking practices the same way, trying to get better at the things I need to get better at and learn from the tape each week.”
Thielen said he tries to stay levelheaded while having one of the best receiving seasons in the NFL this year.
“I have a lot of things to work on, a lot of things to get better at, which is good,” he said. “I’m always trying to get better. When there are things I see on tape that I think I can get better at, it frustrates me.
“There were a couple things [Sunday], should have had a catch on third down and it went through my arms. Things like that frustrate you and you think about those things and you want to get better.”
Free agents remain
The Vikings would have even bigger issues during the upcoming offseason if they hadn’t signed Thielen and Xavier Rhodes to contract extensions after last season. They still have two restricted free agents and 14 unrestricted free agents on the roster.
The restricted are offensive linemen Nick Easton and Jeremiah Sirles.
On the unrestricted side are quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford and Case Keenum; running back Jerick McKinnon; defensive linemen Shamar Stephen, Tom Johnson and Sharrif Floyd; wide receiver Michael Floyd; kicker Kai Forbath; linebacker Emmanuel Lamur; cornerbacks Marcus Sherels, Tramaine Brock and Terence Newman and offensive lineman Joe Berger.
The Twins have had a long history of great center fielders, but there’s a chance that if Byron Buxton can remain healthy, he’ll be the best defensive center fielder the team has ever had.
Buxton played so well defensively this season that he caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal, which ran a full-page story on him late in the season.
The story mentioned new statistical methods of measuring a player’s fielding ability and how they can track the defensive capability of someone like Buxton.
Buxton told the Journal that MLB’s advanced stats and their new video systems helped him become an even better outfielder.
“I picked up on the numbers and I was like, ‘Well, I can be better than this, I can do this better,’ ” he said. “So I started picking out the small things that I felt like I could get a little better at.”
Over the course of the season, those efforts paid off. Major League Baseball kept a stat called “Outs Above Average,” which took into account catch probability, and determined Buxton was 25 outs above average. The next closest defensive player was Braves outfielder Ender Inciarte with 19.
Buxton won his first Gold Glove last week at 23, tying him with pitcher Jim Kaat in 1962 and shortstop Zoilo Versalles in 1963 as the youngest Twins to receive the award.
Kaat became one of the best fielding pitchers in history, with 16 career Gold Gloves, 11 with the Twins. Versalles won only one other Gold Glove, in 1965, the same year he was named American League MVP.
Buxton’s career has a better chance of going Kaat’s way, and the most obvious comparison to Buxton is former Twin Torii Hunter, who was long considered one of the best fielding outfielders in baseball. Hunter won seven consecutive Gold Gloves with the Twins from 2001-07, but he didn’t win his first award until he was 25.
A few days after the Twins season ended in a wild-card playoff loss to the Yankees, manager Paul Molitor was asked about Buxton’s future.
“I think we still don’t know how high that ceiling can be,” he said. “I think that being the No. 1 prospect and some of the expectations that were put on him probably had a little bit of an ill effect, but he has fought his way through that. He’s just looking for a way to use his tremendous skill set to try and apply it each day and help us win.
“He’s one of the most unselfish, humble, talented young kids I have ever seen in this game and it’s going to be fun to watch him continue to improve as the years go by.”
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. firstname.lastname@example.org