It might seem like there could be no similarities between the college careers of Vikings teammates Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson. But the fact is that both receivers were drastically undervalued coming out of high school and built their success through overcoming major odds.
Thielen, of course, joined the Vikings as an undrafted free agent out of Division II Minnesota State Mankato.
Jefferson, on the other hand, went to SEC powerhouse LSU, the FBS national champion this past season. With the Tigers, he became one of the best receivers in the country, leading to the Vikings drafting him 22nd overall in April.
But their prep paths weren’t all that different. Thielen didn’t receive a single Division I offer after graduating from Detroit Lakes High School.
Jefferson was rated 308th among receiver prospects nationally in the Class of 2017, according to 247 Sports. LSU was the only program to offer him when he graduated from Destrehan High School in Louisiana, some 20 miles west of New Orleans. It helped him that his older brother, Jordan, was a Tigers quarterback from 2008 to 2011.
Both went on to become stars at their respective programs. Thielen finished his Minnesota State Mankato career as the Mavericks’ No. 2 receiver all-time with 198 receptions, and he was third in receiving yards with 2,802 and touchdowns with 20.
Despite playing only three seasons, Jefferson ended his LSU career ranked third all-time in receiving TDs (24), fifth all-time in receptions (165) and sixth in receiving yards (2,415).
Now, of course, the Vikings can only hope that Jefferson turns into the kind of player that Thielen has become over the past six seasons with the Vikings.
With the loss of Stefon Diggs in a trade to the Buffalo Bills — a trade that gave the Vikings the pick they used on Jefferson — the rookie is going to get snaps right away.
Thielen ready to teach
There isn’t a professional sports league that changes as quickly as the NFL, and Thielen will learn that this season as he is the third-longest-tenured player on the Vikings roster with seven years on the team.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph leads the club with 10 years and safety Harrison Smith is right behind with nine.
Now Thielen, who really came into his own in 2016, will be asked to lead a wide receivers room with a lot of new faces.
He told the NFL Network he is excited about the prospect of working with Jefferson, saying: “I’m excited. I’m excited for him to get here to start working with him. Obviously it’s going to be a different room. Diggs and I had a lot of years together and knew each other like the back of our hands, so it’s definitely going to be different, but exciting at the same time.”
Over the past four seasons, Thielen ranks 12th in the NFL in receiving yards (4,034) and 14th in receptions (303) and touchdowns (24).
But over that time he has shared the field with Diggs, who ranked 11th in receptions (313) and touchdowns (26) and 14th in yards (3,903).
Now the Vikings’ current depth chart at receiver features Thielen, Jefferson, Bisi Johnson and Tajae Sharpe.
Thielen knows it will be a big change, but it is something he says he is ready for.
“I’m excited honestly to get in the same room with [Jefferson] when this is all over with and get on the field and just try to help out where I can,” Thielen said. “I really enjoy that part of the game, teaching, coaching and helping guys understand the game a little bit better. I was telling someone the other day that that stuff actually helps me, when I’m talking, when I’m coaching, when I’m teaching, I’m actually really talking to myself. I get better that way and excited again.
“We have a lot of young talent in that room, and it’s just a really cool opportunity for me to be able to help out.”
Cousins likes versatility
Another Vikings veteran expecting big things out of Jefferson is quarterback Kirk Cousins, who posted the best passer rating of his professional career in 2019 (107.4) while throwing 26 touchdowns against only six interceptions.
But the fact is that Diggs had by far the most targets of any Vikings player last season with 94. The next-highest mark on the team went to running back Dalvin Cook with 63 and Thielen and Rudolph tied with 48 targets apiece. Thielen missed six games because of injury.
The Vikings are going to have to get a lot of production out of a lot of people to replace Diggs.
“I think most people thought that Jefferson wouldn’t be available by the time we were picking, so I know that we were all pretty excited to get him and I know our coaches were texting saying that he’s the real deal,” Cousins said. “One of the things they really like about him is just his versatility, he can play inside, outside, he has speed, he has size, makes the contested catch. I’m excited about the addition.”
• Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders wrote on ESPN:“Fifth-round pick [Gophers and Minneapolis North product] Tyler Johnson will become Tom Brady’s new favorite slot receiver for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He won’t put up the numbers of Julian Edelman and Wes Welker, not with all the competition for targets in Tampa Bay, but he’ll gain Brady’s trust. Johnson is a former high school quarterback who runs crisp routes with vision and toughness.”
• Avante Dickerson is one of the highest-rated high school football recruits to ever choose playing for the Gophers. The cornerback from Omaha told the Lincoln Star Journal why he picked coach P.J. Fleck’s program over schools such as Ohio State, LSU, Penn State, Texas, Oregon and USC. “Some schools just offered and then didn’t talk to me,” Dickerson said. “[The Gophers] were my third offer and the fact they stayed in contact ever since showed how much they cared. They didn’t just treat me like another athlete, they treated me like I was a big priority for them.”
• Not only did the Vikings select a record 15 draft picks this year, but they also have three additional draft picks in 2021 — a fourth-round pick from Buffalo, a fourth-round pick from Chicago and a fifth-round pick from Baltimore.
• North Carolina men’s basketball coach Roy Williams talked to the Raleigh News & Observer about signing Hopkins standout Kerwin Walton: “I think we’re getting a very good basketball player from a great high school program. A majestic kind of high school program. They’ve won so many state championships. A young man who knows how to win, knows how to make sacrifices for what’s best for the team.”
• If the Twins have a bad 2020 season financially, which seems quite possible given the pandemic, it’s worth noting that they have only $60.4 million in committed payroll in 2021 compared to $132.9 million in 2020.