Adam Thielen: A True WR1 by Any Measure - Footballguys

A detailed look at Adam Thielen's fantasy prospects for 2018.

A Bonafide No. 1 Fantasy Receiver

Adam Thielen’s career arc has been impressive. From practice squad player to Pro Bowler, he enters 2018 as the top playmaker on a top-10 passing offense. Thielen was the No. 8 fantasy receiver last year with Case Keenum under center and now gets to catch passes from Kirk Cousins. That’s like winning the Indy 500 in a Civic and then being handed the keys to a Lamborghini as you try to defend your crown. While some may prefer Stefon Diggs because of his multi-round discount on draft day, the right answer is to target either player. The Vikings offensive pie is getting larger; Cousins guarantees enough targets, downfield yards, and touchdowns for both players to return value. Thielen has a high floor, a high ceiling, and elite week-to-week consistency. What’s not to love?


Local Boy Makes Good

Adam Thielen is living every football player’s dream. Born in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, Thielen went on to play college football at Minnesota State University at Mankato. The Division II star wasn’t invited to the NFL Scouting Combine and went undrafted. He passed up more lucrative signing bonuses from Atlanta and Green Bay to sign with his hometown (and childhood favorite) Vikings. After signing, scouts largely discounted Thielen because he played next to no special teams in college and would need to make the Vikings roster as a special teamer. A consistent preseason characterized by a strong work ethic, and surprising speed still wasn’t enough to make the 53-man roster. Thielen accepted a spot on the Vikings practice squad.

A year later, Thielen parlayed a subpar veteran receiving corps and another strong preseason into a roster spot; catching eight receptions for 137 yards and a touchdown in limited snaps. His role was unchanged in 2015, which led to a 12/144/0 season. The buzz continued and beat writers talked about Thielen’s play-making ability, but Minnesota used a first-round pick on vaunted rookie Laquon Treadwell; who was supposed to step into the No. 1 role alongside Stefon Digg, who emerged in 2015.

The rest is history, as Treadwell failed to win over coaches or teammates and Thielen continued to do everything right. At season’s end, the former practice squad player was a bonafide NFL starter with 69 receptions for 967 yards (14.0 per reception) and 5 touchdowns. Thielen’s 2016 made him a favorite breakout candidate in 2017 fantasy drafts, and he more than delivered.

  • 143 targets (8th among NFL receivers)
  • 91 receptions (8th)
  • 1,277 yards (5th)
  • 243.8 fantasy points (8th)

Why Not Just Draft Stefon Diggs A Round or Two Later?

Liking Stefon Diggs’ fantasy outlook is not mutually exclusive from being high on Thielen. Both players have established themselves as quality receivers, and no worse than fantasy WR2s in all scoring formats. Some fantasy owners look at Diggs’ two-round ADP discount and see him as the smarter choice. Others question Diggs’ injury history. Neither perspective is necessarily wrong.

In the two seasons Diggs and Thielen have started together:

Player
Gms
Tgts
Recs
Ctc%
Yards
YPerRec
TDs
FPTs
PPR-FPTs
FPTs/Gm
PPRFPTs/Gm
32
235
160
68.1%
2244
14.0
9
278.4
438.4
8.7
13.7
28
207
148
71.5%
1752
11.8
11
241.2
389.2
8.6
13.9

On a points-per-game basis, they’re essentially the same player. It’s Thielen’s durability that sets him apart, as Diggs has missed four games in the last two years. Rather than debate between the two Vikings stars, look at either as a valuable piece of a winning fantasy roster.

Is Cousins A Certain Upgrade?

Changing quarterbacks is one of the most disruptive changes any receiver can endure, and Thielen will be dealing with a third starting quarterback in three seasons. Usually, a new quarterback represents a risk worth factoring into your draft analysis, but in this case, it’s difficult – if not impossible – to think the change isn’t a net positive.

Kirk Cousins became the most sought-after free agent quarterback in modern history after Washington opted against franchising him for a third year. Cousins quickly signed a 3-year, $84 million contract – the most guaranteed money in NFL history – to join the Vikings. But just because a team throws money at a free agent, doesn’t mean it’s a surefire upgrade. Is Cousins demonstrably better than his predecessors Sam Bradford (2016) and Case Keenum (2017)?

In a word? YES.

Per Game Career Stats

Player
From
To
Cmps
Atts
Cmp%
PAYds
Yds/Att
PaTDs
Ints
Sacks
2010
2017
22.6
36.1
62.6%
238.1
6.6
1.3
0.7
2.4
2012
2017
22.1
33.8
65.4%
261.4
7.7
1.6
0.9
1.7
2012
2017
19.0
30.7
61.9%
213.9
7.0
1.1
0.7
1.7

All three quarterbacks have roughly equivalent per-game usage rates, but Cousins has been significantly more productive. His completion rate (65.4%), yards per game (261.4), yards per attempt (7.7), and touchdowns per game (1.6) all dwarf his predecessors. The difference between Cousins and his predecessors is even more impressive if you look at Bradford and Keenum’s career averages before playing in Minnesota.

Per Game Career Stats, Pre-Minnesota

Player
From
To
Cmps
Atts
Cmp%
PaYds
Yds/Att
PaTDs
Ints
Sacks
2010
2015
21.9
36.4
60.2%
234.8
6.5
1.2
0.8
2.3
2012
2017
22.1
33.8
65.4%
261.4
7.7
1.6
0.9
1.7
2012
2016
17.5
29.9
58.5%
200.9
6.7
0.9
0.8
1.9

Note both Bradford and Keenum enjoyed career seasons in Minnesota. While it’s not necessary to project Cousins’ numbers to improve from his already-impressive career marks, what if he sees a similar improvement? Thielen is in great hands.  

Projections

YEAR
Projector
G
RSH
YD
TD
REC
YD
TD
FumL
2018
15.3
2
10
0
79
1098
6.1
0.8
2018
16.0
2
10
0
84
1165
6.0
0.0
2018
16.0
0
0
0
87
1215
7.0
0.0
2018
16.0
0
0
0
80
1140
4.8
0.8

Final Thoughts

Adam Thielen is a stark reminder to avoid recency bias. Today's undrafted free agent could be tomorrow's star. Every NFL season brings changing circumstances, and Thielen had to fight through inherent biases including playing for a small school and being a practice squad player, but ultimately his work ethic, elite route running, and plus athleticism won out. He and Stefon Diggs are arguably the best receiving tandem in the NFC, and helped the Vikings offense to an 11th-place finish a year ago, with Case Keenum under center. Now Kirk Cousins -- a much better passer -- takes over and that means more opportunities for everyone in Minnesota. Thielen resumes his role as the top target and provides the rare combination of a high floor and a high ceiling. He's going to come at a high price in drafts, but he's worth every penny. 


OTHER VIEWPOINTS

Footballguys Jeff Pasquino offers a different opinion:

"This may be an unpopular stance, but we may have seen the peak of Thielen’s fantasy production last season. While his season-long numbers were strong, looking harder at the last six games of the regular season (and two postseason games), Thielen had just one touchdown and one game with over 100 yards receiving. The NFL learns fast, and defensive coordinators adjusted quickly to Thielen’s emergence as a very capable wideout. Add in the return of Dalvin Cook to rekindle the Minnesota ground game and the change at quarterback to Kirk Cousins, and there are several possible paths to lower production for Thielen this season. For those reasons, he should be falling down your wide receiver draft list."

CBS Sports Heath Cummings worries about Cousins' history of not playing favorites:

"Thielen saw 142 targets last year. Cousins has never thrown the ball 142 times to any one receiver in a season. He likes to spread the ball around, and he has plenty of options. Between Stefon DiggsKyle Rudolph and Dalvin Cook,  I'd expect Cousins will continue to spread the ball at a high rate. Thielen will still be awesome, but he won't be a top-12 receiver with a reduction in targets."