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Fantasy Football: Adam Thielen is this year's Michael Thomas

Have you heard that Calvin Ridley is this year’s version of Chris Godwin? I am fully on board the Ridley hype train, having predicted him to outscore Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in 2020.

But even as exciting as Ridley’s potential is in 2020, he won’t reach 2019 Michael Thomas fantasy production. Godwin was massively valuable as a third- or fourth-round pick in 2019, but Thomas’ historic campaign — scoring 100 fantasy points more than the overall WR2 — that was a real difference-maker.

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Thus, I set out to discover who will be this year’s Thomas — a top-tier fantasy and real-life WR with the right combination of historical production, expected volume and team context that can support an overall WR1 finish. That player is Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen.

Prior WR1 Production

From Weeks 1-9 in 2018, Thielen and quarterback Kirk Cousins were firing on all cylinders. The Vikings wide receiver was the WR1 in fantasy by a wide margin (23 points) and led the league in targets (102), receptions (78), routes run (392) and games with 100-plus yards receiving. His 216.7 points scored over this nine-game stretch paralleled any nine-game period of production that Thomas posted in 2019.

Most PPR fantasy points in 2018 (WRs)
DeAndre Hopkins 337.5
Julio Jones 329.9
Tyreek Hill 328.0
Davante Adams 327.6
Antonio Brown 323.7
Michael Thomas 319.5
Adam Thielen 307.3
JuJu Smith-Schuster 296.9
Mike Evans 286.4

Over the past two seasons, only Thomas, Thielen and Davante Adams have posted at least one nine-game stretch of over 200 fantasy points (22.22 fantasy points per game). Thielen is more than capable of producing elite WR1 numbers, but it’s crucial to recognize that the 2018 Vikings offense threw the ball far more than the team did in 2019.

In 2018, they ranked second in passing attempts and fifth in pass-play percentage (68.8%) during the first nine weeks of the season. During the entire 2019 season, the Vikings ranked 30th in passing attempts and 31st in pass-play percentage (52%). But the fact that the Vikings were able to sustain success as a running team last season is not a clear indication that they will be able to repeat their efforts. They are going to find themselves in more negative game scripts.

When the Vikings were winning in 2019, they ran a ton (72%). When they were losing, they still were above average in terms of run-play percentage (41%), but it was a significant drop-off from their extreme run rate with a lead.

2019 Minnesota Vikings (including postseason)
  Run Play % Rank
Winning by more than 7 points 72% 1st
Scored tied 44% 11th
Losing by at least 7 points 41% 6th

During the regular season, the Vikings ran the seventh-most overall plays and second-most run plays when winning by more than seven points. That’s not too different from the New Orleans Saints — they ran fourth-most total plays and sixth-most run plays when winning by more than seven points.

2019 New Orleans Saints (including postseason)
  Run % Rank
Winning by more than 7 points 52% 13th
Scored tied 36% 27th
Losing by at least 7 points 34% 22nd

It’s well within the range of outcomes that the 2020 Vikings have a more balanced pass/run ratio, like the 2019 Saints. That team totaled 581 passing attempts, and the PFF projections for Cousins’ passing attempts in 2020 (540) line up with the average for the Vikings over the past two seasons. The Minnesota defense is a significant candidate for regression in 2020 after a considerable overhaul during the offseason. Expect to see the team trailing more frequently, leading to more passing attempts.  

Regression on Defense

This offseason, the Vikings lost the following players on the defensive side of the ball: Trae Waynes, Everson Griffen, Mackensie Alexander, Linval Joseph, Jayron Kearse, Andrew Sendejo and Xavier Rhodes.

Joseph and Griffen were two of the better defensive players for Minnesota over the last few seasons. Joseph was the team’s highest-graded interior defender (71.2), and Griffen was the team’s second-highest-graded (77.6) edge defender in 2019.

Waynes, Alexander and Rhodes were the team’s top three cornerbacks last season, leaving Mike Hughes and Holton Hill to compete for playing time against rookies Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler.

The defense in 2019 also forced turnovers at one of the highest rates in the league, which is not going to repeat. They can't bank on the defense converting turnover opportunities at the league's highest rate (70.7%) again. 

The Vikings weren’t winning because they were running the football at such a high rate. They were winning, which let them run more. I don’t anticipate a repeat running performance, which bodes well for Thielen’s high-end potential in 2019.

After all, you know what team in 2018 ran the ball at the third-highest rate? The New Orleans Saints (54.3%). They followed that up by throwing more the next season (61.3%), helping Thomas break the receptions record.

But even if the Vikings increase their total passing volume to above league average, that alone won’t get Thielen to finish as an upper-echelon receiver. He is going to have to dominate the targets in his offense and hit a 30% target share like Thomas.

Supporting Cast

Part of the reason Thomas was able to achieve such a high target share was that there weren’t any real established receivers outside of Alvin Kamara (who was limited with injuries) on the roster. No other wide receiver saw more than 55 targets. Kamara (95) and tight end Jared Cook (62) ranked second and third, respectively, in total targets.

2019 New Orleans Saints Total Targets
Michael Thomas 180
Alvin Kamara 95
Jared Cook 62
Ted Ginn Jr. 53
Latavius Murray 42
Josh Hill 33
Tre'Quan Smith 25
Taysom Hill 22
Zach Line 10
Deonte Harris 6

It’s no surprise that Thomas saw so many targets considering the supporting cast. When I look at the Vikings’ roster, it’s the same type of lackluster supporting cast behind Thielen. He missed six games last year and ranked third on the team in total targets — and that was with Stefon Diggs.

2019 Minnesota Vikings Total Targets
Stefon Diggs 91
Dalvin Cook 62
Adam Thielen 47
Kyle Rudolph 46
Irv Smith Jr. 46
Olabisi Johnson 41
C.J. Ham 24
Ameer Abdullah 19
Laquon Treadwell 16
Alexander Mattison 11
Tyler Conklin 9

Diggs' departure leaves little competition for Thielen. The wide receivers contending for targets in 2020 include first-round pick Justin Jefferson, Olabisi Johnson, Tajae Sharpe and Chad Beebe

Even with Jefferson’s stout college pedigree, stepping in and taking over the 20% of team targets that Diggs left behind is an extremely tall task for a rookie during a COVID-19 offseason. 

It’s not just the receivers who will be jousting for looks in the passing game — the Vikings have a solid group of running backs and tight ends. Still, it’s hard not to see Thielen capitalizing on Diggs’ absence more than the likes of Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. on top of the high target share he was already seeing.

During the first seven weeks of the season before his injury, Thielen saw a 23.5% target rate on routes run versus Diggs’ 24.1%. With a bump up in targets, Thielen will have a much better chance of duplicating his efforts from 2018 when he saw a 28% target share and a 26% target rate on routes run.

The veteran wide receiver also has a chance to deliver on more scoring opportunities. As highlighted in my article about which players see the most money opportunities in fantasy football, Thielen saw the second-highest percentage of end-zone targets in 2019 among wide receivers (17%). During Weeks 1-7, when he was healthy, he tied for second in total end-zone targets (eight).

Thielen is going to continue to see looks in the end zone from Cousins, considering the quarterback ranks fourth in end-zone throws since 2017. The two have a special connection, so if Cousins can continue his efficient play from last year (career-high 84.1 overall grade), than Thielen has tremendous upside.

Since 2018, Thielen’s receiver rating generated (120.1) and PFF grade (89.9) ranked fifth and seventh, respectively, on throws from Cousins. There’s also a chance that Thielen sees more downfield looks with the team in need of a vertical presence. 

Highest PFF Quarterback-Wide Receiver Grades Since 2018
DeAndre Hopkins – Deshaun Watson 92.5
Michael Thomas – Drew Brees 92.3
Julio Jones – Matt Ryan 91.7
Tyreek Hill – Patrick Mahomes 90.5
Keenan Allen – Philip Rivers 90.2
Davante Adams – Aaron Rodgers 90.1
Adam Thielen – Kirk Cousins 89.9

Diggs owned that role in 2019, ranking third in targets of 20 or more yards. But in 2018, Thielen led the Vikings in deep receptions (11) while finishing No. 2 overall in deep reception percentage (55%) among receivers with at least 20 deep targets. Also, Thielen’s aDOT increased from 10.0 to 14.0 in 2019 — that mark ranked top-25 last season among qualifying wide receivers.

Conclusion

Most people see Davante Adams as the most likely receiver to usurp Thomas atop the WR ranks. Adams fits the mold to a tee, from a weak supporting cast to previously posting WR1 overall production. But Adams’ ADP as WR2 does not offer even close to the same value as Thielen’s ADP as WR14. 

Thielen is a surefire bet to beat his ADP by a landslide. With regression from the defense, a weak supporting cast, favorable strength of schedule and Cousins peppering him with valuable targets, Thielen is a legitimate dark horse candidate to finish as the No. 1 wide receiver overall. 

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