Fantasy Football: Adam Thielen Deserves More Respect

Adam Thielen had a breakout year in 2016, but he's still getting undervalued as we approach fantasy football draft season.

May is an interesting time for football fandom. There’s the overblown -- and sometimes unbearable -- stories because it’s the first sign of football since the Super Bowl. On the other hand, it’s the first sign of football since the Super Bowl.

Much of this includes drills and unpadded practices, but it’s nice to see most of a team’s roster hit the field for the first time in months. Some like to keep these as secretive as possible, while others give us a little more of a glimpse than others.

The Minnesota Vikings are part of the latter.

During their OTAs, they shared a brief 72-second video that included some highlights of the first week of practices. Parts of the video display work by second-round pick Dalvin Cook, last year’s first-round pick Laquon Treadwell losing a contested catch to Xavier Rhodes for an interception, and Teddy Bridgewater (!) throwing a football.

The play that brought about the most discussion comes at the 39-second mark, when Stefon Diggs runs a route that leaves Terence Newman completely lost in coverage. The play before that, though, is a one-handed diving catch down the field by Adam Thielen. The impressiveness of the play was lost because it was immediately followed by the sweetness of Diggs’ route, so it got overlooked.

However, we're not going to overlook Thielen.

An Unexpected Breakout

Thielen has experienced an interesting career arc to this point. He signed with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2013 and spent that year on the practice squad before playing all 32 regular season games over the next two seasons. He spent most of this time as a special teamer, topping out at 18 targets on offense during 2015, but pushed his way into much more playing time last season.

He played 10 games for Minnesota and was on the field for 74.7 percent of the team's offensive snaps, which led all Vikings receivers.

From a broad view, there wasn’t much else extraordinary on the surface of his year. He was third option on an average passing offense -- 13th in Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play -- with a top-10 pass-to-run ratio because the rushing offense was the worst in the league.

But while Thielen finished with 92 targets -- behind Diggs’ 112 and Kyle Rudolph’s 132 -- he led the way in receiving yards (967), making him one of the most efficient receivers in football last season. Among the 92 receivers with 50-plus targets, he ranked second in Reception NEP per Target, with only Atlanta’s Taylor Gabriel finishing better than him, albeit with a much smaller workload (51 targets, 36 receptions) and bigger downfield plays.

When looking at the Minnesota trio, Thielen’s efficiency was well above both Diggs (who ranked 35th) and Rudolph (who was 17th among 32 tight ends with 50 or more targets).

Thielen’s production was mostly well-spread last season, too. Despite only “starting” 10 games, he played in all 16 and was on the field for 50 percent or more of the offensive snaps in all but one game, which he left due to a hit as a defenseless receiver in Week 15 against the Indianapolis Colts. He also saw at least 5 targets in 11 of his 16 games and registered at least 4 catches 9 times.

There was one breakout game against the Packers in Week 16 that might have won some fantasy football leagues, where he caught 12 passes on 15 targets for 202 yards and 2 touchdowns. Outside of that game, though, there was only one other where he saw 10-plus targets. The upside wasn’t always there, but the consistency was.

Following Up

Minnesota’s offense might look a little different this year -- they drafted Cook in the second round, while signing Riley Rieff and Mike Remmers in an attempt to sure up the ground game and pass protection. That could lead to some more run plays this season, and the Vikings are also probably want Laquon Treadwell to see a little more time on the field. He saw just 80 offensive snaps the entire season and had one pass thrown his way.

Maybe that’s what’s scaring some away from him in 2017, but it shouldn’t. The Vikings signed Thielen to a three-year extension this offseason with just under $10 million guaranteed to lock him in through 2020, which currently makes him the top-paid receiver on the Vikings’ roster. That might not mean much since that distinction was held by Treadwell last season, but it doesn’t appear Minnesota is inclined to push Thielen’s playing time down simply because of draft stock.

Per Fantasy Football Calculator’s ADP, Thielen is the 52nd wide receiver off the board in standard 12-team leagues, which is at the top of the 12th round. He’s behind players like Corey Coleman (38th wide receiver), Eric Decker (41), Mike Williams (44), and Kevin White (47). He’s just above John Ross (53) and Josh Gordon (56), who is not currently in the league. Diggs is well above Thielen’s place as the 35th wide receiver coming off the board, which would be in the middle of the eighth round. There's value to be had there for those who recognize Thielen's skill.

A complete repeat doesn't even have to be justified to feel comfortable taking him a few picks earlier than he's currently sitting at. Thielen might not have the upside to turn into a superstar, but his consistent work and production should give him a lot more respect than he’s received so far.