Welcome to the Exception Report. This series is designed to examine players and their impressive seasons, games, and/or plays. It looks for the outliers and helps understand how they are doing it and if it can continue.
Prior to the season, most would have suspected that Stefon Diggs would be the Minnesota Vikings primary threat and their top fantasy asset at the position. However, a combination of injuries and a surprisingly effective passing game has supplemented the talents of Adam Thielen. As of now, Thielen is top five in both receptions and yards in the NFL and has a level of consistency that few projected for the fourth-year undrafted player. He has five or more receptions in each of the last nine games, a streak that trails only Jarvis Landry’s 10 for the longest active run in the NFL. If Thielen were to reach a 10th game, he would become the 48th instance in the history of the NFL. While the record is 36, held by Antonio Brown, the most any other player has managed is 19 by Laveranues Coles.
How did he get here?
Thielen’s rise to prominence is equal parts Disney inspirational and Lifetime overcoming-the-odds movie. A native Minnesotan, Thielen was an all-state receiver in high school before attending Minnesota State, where he was a three-year starter. He wasn’t a combine invitee but did perform at several regional events and impressed the Vikings enough to sign as a rookie free agent.
Thielen was an experienced special teams player and came at the perfect time. During Thielen’s rookie season of 2014, the leading receivers were a near-retirement Greg Jennings, future receiver bust Cordarrelle Patterson, and soon-to-be-offseason-hyped Charles Johnson. 2015 saw see the additions of Stefon Diggs and Mike Wallace along with the emergence of Kyle Rudolph, which put a damper on Thielen’s future. But with Wallace out of the picture after the 2015 season and injuries to Diggs and Jarius Wright, Thielen was given 10 starts, nearly achieving a 1,000-yard season.
Digging further into the 2016 breakout, there were reasons for extreme optimism. He finished sixth in wide receiver rating (passer rating when targeted) on 88 targets. Add in a disparity in yards per route run (22nd overall) compared to total routes run (39th), there was indication that the team would realize that efficiency and turn up the volume. In the slot, where he played 29 percent of his snaps, Thielen had the fourth-highest catch rate (80 percent) while also seeing a slightly higher target-to-route percentage (21 percent vs 18 percent).
What has he done?
Coming into 2017, Thielen had a grip on the second receiver job, which is unexpected given the first-round pick spent on Laquon Treadwell last year. Treadwell saw little time in his rookie year and, while he has been given more time, is not a threat to Thielen. Diggs has also missed several games (again) with a groin injury, further opening it up to Thielen. While a Sam Bradford injury looked like a serious issue for Thielen, he has managed just fine with Case Keenum.
Thielen’s wide receiver rating has dropped, mostly a result of Bradford’s absence, but is still a very respectable 24th at 106.1 for his quarterbacks. Considering he has nearly matched last year’s target total (83 this season), Thielen’s increase in yards per route run (third behind Julio Jones and Antonio Brown) by over a half yard is massive. Add in the fact that he has run nearly 150 fewer routes and Thielen is being targeted at a much higher rate (26 percent vs. 18).
As for his slot performance, that has gone up as well. Thielen is running over half his routes (55 percent) in that position, nearly doubling that 29 percent rate from 2016. And that 26 percent target rate overall is slightly higher in the slot (27 percent) with a 2.24 yards-per-route-run average that is fourth from the position. Just for kicks, Thielen is tied for second in the NFL with nine deep (20-plus yard) receptions and is doing it with a 60 percent% catch rate, tied for third.
What can he do?
The question may need to be “What can’t he do?” Thielen is one of the most well-rounded options in 2017. The deep pass success, the ability in the slot, and the increase in volume has turned the 2016 hamburger into the 2017 Jucy Lucy that has satiated Vikings fans all season.
Yes, Thielen has at least five receptions in every game this season, but it goes deeper than that. He has at least six targets (five of nine with 10-plus) in every game and has cleared 40 receiving yards in every game as well. The number of players who have performed the latter: 1.
And those target numbers have increased too as the season has rolled along. Over the last four weeks, Thielen has 44 targets with at least 10 in each of those. With 145 team attempts in those four games, Thielen’s share of targets available is 30 percent and is seeing a target on 31 percent of his routes (36 percent of his slot routes). While Diggs has only been around for two of those weeks, Thielen hasn’t slowed since Diggs’ return in Week 8.
If someone wants to quibble over the primary vs secondary option between Diggs and Thielen, that’s fine. The Vikings are 12th in both passing yards and touchdowns to this point compared to 18th and 21st at the end of the 2016 season. There is more to be gained in this offense, at least enough for two very good receivers.
The matchup against the Rams next week isn’t easy, the defense is top 10 in passing yards and passing touchdowns allowed. That said, there is potential for a shootout, words no one would have said before the season, and Thielen should be in a central role. He should get five receptions next week, but continuing the streak to surpass Coles into second place is a tall order, especially with a healthy Diggs.
Confidence level to reach a 10th game: 90%
Confidence level to surpass 20 games: 5%
What does this mean for fantasy?
Right now, Thielen is the No. 5 fantasy wide receiver for standard leagues, third in PPR formats. Considering he has done this with just two receiving touchdowns is a testament to his ability to accumulate receptions and yardage. Add in the fact that Keenum is just 23rd in quarterback scoring reaffirms the idea that Thielen is a central focus in that offense. There are risks past this season however, including the return of Dalvin Cook and what the future of the team’s quarterback position looks like. Also, while the bandwagon is awfully empty, Treadwell still looms along with Diggs and Rudolph for targets. Thielen may never see another season this dominant, but that shouldn’t deter owners from looking at him as a weekly starting asset for the next three to five years.