​Will Adam Thielen Be Better in Fantasy Football Without Stefon Diggs?

Adam Thielen has had an extraordinary career so far. The 29-year old Minnesota Vikings wide receiver isn’t on a Hall of Fame trajectory, but he has been undervalued every step of the way in his football career and still has exceeded expectations.

Thielen is a two-time walk-on, first in college at Minnesota State, then as an undrafted rookie for Minnesota in 2013. Despite having no draft capital and no production in Division I college football, he has become one of the better wide receivers of the last two decades. Thielen’s 9.26 yards per target ranks 23rd among all receivers who joined the NFL since 2000 (minimum 30 games played). Among undrafted receivers to enter the league since 2000, his 4,315 receiving yards are 10th-most. That’s a lot from a place it wasn’t expected.

Thielen has done all this while having to split looks in an often-mediocre passing game with another talented receiver, Stefon Diggs. This offseason, though, Diggs was traded away and Thielen is now the undisputed number-one in the North Star State.

With all the expectation on Thielen's shoulders, will Diggs’s absence be a big boost for Thielen in fantasy football?

All by Myself: Thielen Without Diggs

Since both Thielen and Diggs became starters in 2016, Thielen has played in 58 regular season games. Of those 58 games, only seven have been without Diggs. In those seven, Thielen has had to carry the load himself thanks to very little help in the Minnesota depth chart. How has that affected his production?

The table below shows Thielen’s per-game splits with and without Diggs.

Per-Game Averages With Diggs Without Diggs
PPR Points 14.6 15.7
Receptions 5.0 6.6
Receiving Yards 69.8 68.1
Targets 7.3 9.3

Thielen’s most daunting competition for targets in the games Diggs has missed comes down to red-zone tight end Kyle Rudolph, gadget weapon Cordarrelle Patterson, or mediocre slot man Jarius Wright. Despite that, Thielen’s target workload increased by only two per game, and his receiving yards actually slightly dipped. That means that his PPR value, although boosted slightly, increased by just 7.5 percent when Diggs wasn’t on the field.

It’s Lonely at the Top: Thielen as Minnesota’s WR1

I looked into the box scores of games Diggs missed throughout his career and isolated Thielen’s air yards (the distance the ball traveled through the air before the catch; receiving yards minus yards after catch). Thielen created the same number of yards after the catch (YAC) in both splits (4.2 YAC per reception), but his air yards per reception were 8.8 with Diggs in the lineup and just 5.3 without him. Without Diggs to function as the primary quick-hit option for the Vikings’ short passing game, Thielen filled that role. This limited his ability to go deeper and get bigger yards on plays even as it funneled him the ball more.

Though we might assume the shorter-yardage role means Thielen moved more to the slot without Diggs, that’s not the case. Per Pro Football Focus (PFF), Thielen played 43.1 percent of his snaps inside without Diggs on the field, and 45.5 percent in the slot when they played together. There’s not even a loss of consistency that Thielen suffered without another talented receiver to take pressure off of him; his catch rate without Diggs rose from 69.5 percent to 70.7 percent.

The one major difference we see in the game splits data is that Thielen is allowed fewer scoring chances by opposing defenses when he’s the only threat. His touchdown-per-catch rate drops by 28.9 percent without Diggs in the lineup.

All of this means that when Thielen is the undisputed top receiving option on the field for the Vikings, he hogs the targets and is more used as a security blanket for his quarterback. When he has someone to work off of, though, Thielen gets to venture down the field and has more big-play upside.

How does this change in usage affect his fantasy potential going forward?

You’re the One That I Want: 2020 Fantasy Outlook

The Vikings will return just a few of their depth receiver options this season in Bisi Johnson and Chad Beebe. They did draft rookie Justin Jefferson in the first round this offseason, but it’s not likely he saps off a ton of fantasy value as he acclimates to the NFL in Year 1.

Our model projects Thielen for 233.0 PPR fantasy points in 2020, the 15th-most among wide receivers, from 1,073 receiving yards and 6.8 touchdowns on 81 receptions (126 targets). This would basically be in line with his average 16-game output over his career: 235.2 PPR points from 1,112 receiving yards and 6.7 touchdowns on 84 receptions (120 targets).

Thielen’s volume upside without a seasoned second receiver may actually be higher than what we have him for, as he has a 16-game pace of 149 targets as the team’s sole primary receiving option. While Jefferson picks up the offense in a pandemic-shortened offseason, it’s entirely possible that Thielen becomes even more of a security blanket for quarterback Kirk Cousins and consumes a superstar-level target share in the Minnesota passing attack. If that ceiling is hit (with the same per-target rates as our model gives), Thielen could end up a top-three fantasy wideout.

With that kind of floor and ceiling combo and an ADP price tag of WR16 per BestBall10s (36th overall), Thielen is a rare late third-round value. Going near him are pricey tight ends like Mark Andrews and Darren Waller, (possibly) overhyped rookie running backs like Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Jonathan Taylor, and even sophomore quarterback hype machine Kyler Murray. Even considering the other options, Thielen is a championship selection at that point of fantasy drafts.