Is Adam Thielen a Quality Late-Round Fantasy Football Option?

The Minnesota Vikings' receiver burst onto the scene last year, and there's a good chance he'll bring it again in 2017.

There are a ton of phrases used in sports scouting that fascinate and, frankly, amuse me to no end. A lot of these terms help us group players in funny-sounding categories and define them in shorthand.

First, at the top of the talent pile, we have the guys who "just have 'It.'" These “It Guys” aren’t who you call for help with your computer, but they can do everything else, and they were born to do it with natural aplomb.

Much lower, there are the “ham-and-eggers," the average sort of guys who are hearty, but nothing special.

I would put Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen in the grind-it-out “lunch pail guy” category, however.

Thielen began his NFL career as an undrafted free agent out of Minnesota State University at Mankato, a Division II football program at a school that’s better known for its agriculture and teacher training. Thielen worked his way from walk-on tryout, to practice squad member, to special teams, and finally in 2016 a starting wide receiver who racked up 967 yards and 5 touchdowns.

But can Thielen bring it again in 2017, or will he lose his lunch money?

Swapping Snack Packs

When I was a kid and was lucky enough to have a parent pack my lunch, it was always a little bit of excitement to find out what got stowed away in that brown bag. You never knew what surprises awaited you – maybe a nice note, or (better) some Gummi bears or a Snack Pack pudding.

Thielen was the chocolate pudding hiding at the bottom of the Vikings’ wide receiver lunchbox in 2016 – an unexpected, joyous surprise.

We can see how impressive Thielen was in his first year as a starter through numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP is a metric that describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to the box score, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The chart below shows Thielen’s Reception NEP each of the last three seasons, where he accrued 14, 18, and 92 targets respectively. How surprising was his 2016 season?

This explosion was unlike anything that could have been expected of Thielen. It’s not just that he earned a ton more Reception NEP due to more than quintupling his target load from 2015; Thielen more than doubled the amount of value he earned per target between these seasons, as well. He improved his catch rate and Reception Success Rate (the percentage of plays resulting in an NEP gain) too, showing that these weren’t unsustainable big-play outbursts.

The table below shows Thielen’s ranks in these metrics – Reception NEP per-target, catch rate, and Reception Success Rate – among the 68 wide receivers to top 75 targets in 2016.

Adam Thielen Rec. NEP/Target Catch Rate Rec. Success Rate
2016 1st 5th 28th

While it’s entirely likely that Thielen could regress back to a more reasonable spot in the receiving pack in 2017, he showed that he has potential in multiple phases of the game.

Per Pro Football Reference, among the 84 players to see at least 15 downfield targets last year, Thielen’s 18.78 yards per target were the fourth-most, and his 70.4 percent catch rate was easily the best mark. He also came in 30th in touchdown rate among the 86 players to see 10 targets in the red zone.

It was a superlative season by any possible measure from an unlikely source, but it seems like this is a stable enough profile to keep Thielen solid into his second course as a starter in 2017.

Like Peanut Butter and Jelly

But how will the Minnesota offense look this year?

Over the last five years, the Vikings haven’t been able to support many wide receivers in the passing game. The table below shows the average target loads for their receivers by role since 2012.

Role Targets
WR1 95.6
WR2 80.6
WR3 62.2
WR4 29.6

Obviously those averages for the top two receiver roles were soundly surpassed by Stefon Diggs and Thielen in 2016, but we also have to consider that this offense was running without its primary driving force: a running back. With a 1.65 pass-to-run play calling ratio, the 2016 season was the most pass-heavy the Minnesota offense has been since 1994 -- nearly a quarter of a century ago.

Fortunately, however, our models project the Vikings' quarterbacks to sustain this passing volume and combine for around 612 passing attempts in 2017, about 30 more than the 2016 season.

If we take the aforementioned target loads by wide receiver role and look at them instead as percentages of the team’s total passing attempts, the Vikings’ second receiver has received a 15.57 percent target market share since 2012. At a total of 612 passing attempts projected in the 2017 offense by our models, that would afford Thielen 95 targets – nearly exactly what he had in 2016. That’s slightly above our models’ projections for the “Mankato Flash” -- which sit at 720 receiving yards and 3.44 touchdowns on 58 receptions (85 targets) -- but the point is that it is entirely possible for this passing attack to sustain its value and, therefore, for Thielen to do the same.

By Fantasy Football Calculator’s Average Draft Position (ADP), Thielen is going off board 136th overall -- in the 12th round of 12-team fantasy drafts as the 51st wide receiver available and behind seven team defenses. Our models project him right around that range (WR54).

With rookie running back Dalvin Cook and veteran Latavius Murray on the roster, not to mention history leaning towards the rush, there’s always the chance the Vikings return to their ground-pounding ways. That risk is why Thielen is a late-round option, but his upside is not currently baked into the price needed to select him.

There are few fantasy wide receivers with better potential and this solid of a floor going late in drafts. Pack an Adam Thielen at the bottom of your draft; you’ll be happy you did.