In 1995, 26-year-old Jimmy Smith had 288 receiving yards, enough to finish fourth on the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars. Smith was once a highly-regarded prospect, selected 36th overall in the 1992 draft, but by this point he was on his second NFL team, finishing his fourth NFL season, and those 288 yards were noteworthy because they were the first 288 yards of his professional career.
In 1996, 26-year-old Rod Smith finished 6th on the Denver Broncos with 237 receiving yards. They were not the first 237 receiving yards of his career; after spending 1994 on the practice squad as an undrafted free agent, Smith ranked ninth on the team with 152 receiving yards in 1995, so his career total was now 389.
26 and 27 aren't old for a wide receiver, but they aren't exactly young, either; players by this point are generally no longer considered “prospects” or thought of as still developing.
Receivers are entering the NFL and producing at a younger age these days, but consider for a moment that Odell Beckham Jr Jr., DeAndre Hopkins, Keenan Allen, Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills, Martavis Bryant, and Robert Woods are all 25 right now. Anecdote is no substitute for data, but those players “feel” like they more or less are done developing by this point.
Kelvin Benjamin, Marqise Lee, Tavon Austin, and Josh Gordon, by contrast, are 26. Alshon Jeffery, Randall Cobb, and Marvin Jones Jr are 27. Again, at the risk of enshrining anecdote as fact, these players “feel” like established veterans by this point. It seems like we know what we're getting.
And yet, despite being by all objective measures a pair of terrible prospects at an age beyond where we should reasonably be expecting improvement, Jimmy Smith and Rod Smith morphed into two of the best wide receivers in the league. In the decade from 1996 to 2005, the only receivers to top 11,000 receiving yards were Marvin Harrison and Jimmy Smith. From 1997 to 2006, the only receivers to accomplish the feat were Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, and Rod Smith.
If you had been making dynasty rankings back then, putting both of the Smiths among your top 10 dynasty receivers would have been correct. It also, I think, would have been pretty stupid, in much the same way that hitting on twenty in a game of blackjack when the dealer is showing seven is a monumentally stupid idea, even if the next card happens to be an ace.
The great thing about dynasty is that, (probably more than any other fantasy football format), there's plenty of room for smart, informed participants to disagree intelligently. But there was no reasonable evidence to justify a top-10 ranking at that point. There was no credible reason to believe that either of those receivers was any good.
This brings me to another 27-year-old receiver who I conveniently omitted from the list above. This brings me to Adam Thielen.
I have a Thielen You're Sick of These Puns
Compared to the Smiths, Thielen's career was off to a blistering start through age 25. Thielen's 281 receiving yards was nearly double the combined total of Rod (152) and Jimmy (0). Over the 2014 and 2015 seasons combined, Thielen was very nearly one of the top 100 fantasy receivers; his 43 fantasy points in standard scoring just barely trailed Kenbrell Thompkins' 43.2 and Ricardo Lockette's 44.6.
Thielen had pedigree, too, as an undrafted free agent and the first NFL player to emerge from Division II Minnesota State, where his 2802 yards in four years secured him numerous awards and honors, like being named to the 2014 Daktronics Super Region No. 3 Second Team.
Thielen wasn't just a college superstar, though; he'd already picked up some accolades in his short NFL career. In his rookie season, for instance, Pro Football Focus named him the 6th-best front-line blocker on kickoff returns in the entire NFL.
Given all he had going for him, it's no surprise that a Minnesota Vikings receiver was going quite high in dynasty drafts heading into the 2016 season. And it's also no surprise that that receiver was not Adam Thielen.
No, the Minnesota Vikings wide receiver every owner wanted in 2016 was Laquon Treadwell, a first-round rookie who had more receptions and touchdowns in three years against the SEC than Thielen had in four years against the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.
In hindsight, this was almost certainly the wrong choice. Nearing the end of his second season, Treadwell still has fewer than 200 receiving yards. Thielen, on the other hand, has five individual games that give Treadwell's career totals a run for their money.
Now, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that the book is not yet closed on Treadwell; he's well ahead of Jimmy Smith's production to this stage of the game, after all. But as things stand now, it'd be as crazy to prefer Treadwell to Thielen as it would have been to prefer Thielen to Treadwell heading into 2016.
I've been thinking about Thielen and Treadwell a lot in recent weeks as Thielen has continued his assault on the 2017 leaderboards. At some point, clearly, it became reasonable to prefer Thielen. And at some later point, it because unreasonable not to prefer Thielen. With the way the NFL plays out week to week, marching ever onward and giving us precious little time to stop and take stock, those points crept up on us.
Late in 2016, Thielen had a masterful 12 reception, 202 yard, 2 touchdown performance. Treadwell, meanwhile, had just three targets and one reception all season. If it wasn't acceptable already, after that game it certainly seems reasonable to prefer Thielen.
Meanwhile, Thielen had an 8 reception, 166 yards, 1 touchdown outburst coming out of Minnesota's bye this year. I think by that point if an owner still preferred Treadwell they were probably just being stubborn.
But who knows. Maybe Thielen had shown something before then and I simply missed the signs. And maybe Treadwell has given more reasons for optimism than I'm giving him credit for. If there are any lessons to be learned from the surprising breakout of Adam Thielen, (And Jimmy and Rod Smith before him), it's that fantasy football is hard and we don't know nearly as much as we think we do.
But not knowing as much as we think we do must not be an excuse to rank without reason. Someone who ranked Thielen above Treadwell a year and a half ago was right, but at the same time they were wrong; right on the specifics, but wrong on the generalities. It takes a great deal of hubris to rank a 26-year-old undrafted free agent with no resume to speak of over a highly-regarded incoming rookie selected in the first round of the NFL draft.
Perhaps hubris is an odd accusation for me to make, given the way I just pivoted from a humbling admonition about how little we know to a hard proscription concerning what is and what is not reasonable. Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)
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