Even after 2,674 receiving yards at Minnesota State and a regional combine performance in which he posted a sub-4.5 40-yard dash, Thielen could secure only a rookie camp tryout with his home state's NFL team. The Vikings had scoured the region's smaller college programs enough to know plenty about the Detroit Lakes, Minn., native, but he wasn't one of the three receivers they'd signed as an undrafted free agent that spring.
"I tell you what was crazy about that weekend: We had signed a young man (Nicholas Edwards) from Eastern Washington," Vikings receivers coach George Stewart said. "And we released him the next day, because of Adam Thielen."
The perception since then has often been, at one point or another, that Thielen was borrowing a roster spot eventually slated for someone else. His impressive 2014 camp, on the fields of his alma mater, was dismissed as a bid to hold Jerome Simpson's roster spot until he returned from suspension. When Thielen made the team in 2015, again as one of six receivers, it was seen mostly as a sop because of his work on special teams. Stewart could see how little teams paid attention to Thielen in the offense, assuming he was there only to run block when he'd enter games as the only receiver in a two-back, two-tight end set.
"They look at him as a blocker," Stewart said. "Once he comes in, they're looking for the run, because he's going to do something in the run game. And then, all of a sudden, he runs by them."
It's getting tougher all the time to write off Thielen as a squatter in the Vikings' offense. He's getting consistent work with the top three-receiver set, and was battling Jarius Wright for playing time even before Wright was injured. He leaped to haul in a 22-yard third-down pass from Teddy Bridgewater during the preseason opener Friday night, catching a ball in coverage that coach Mike Zimmer said he wasn't sure Bridgewater would have thrown last year. And while the 25-year-old is still likely to be a key member of the special teams group, he at last seems poised for more than that.
"It doesn't matter who you are in this league: You're always trying to have a bigger role," Thielen said. "Anybody who said they weren't trying to do that would be lying. I'm trying to get better every day, and help this football team win games."
Thielen's connection with Bridgewater Friday night drew on the chemistry the two built early in 2014, when they were on the scout team together while Matt Cassel was the starting quarterback. Lining up in the left slot, Thielen saw the Bengals with a single-high safety, and bent his route inside of cornerback Josh Shaw, trusting Bridgewater to deliver the ball to the middle of the field before safety Derron Smith could upend him. The completion kept the Vikings' drive alive and set up Bridgewater's 49-yard touchdown to Charles Johnson four plays later.
"They're taught to look at the contour of the secondary, so he kind of knew where the secondary was at," Stewart said. "As he went to get the football, he knew he was going to exchange 25 yards for a headache. He knew that. He went up and got it, and made a play. But again, you go back to special teams. There's a toughness factor he has brought to our offense. "
He'd been a return man in college, and had posted a 75-yard punt return during the 2014 preseason, but nothing in Thielen's background had prepared him for a role on punt coverage and kick return teams. It became his way to stick on a NFL roster, though, and once he blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers on Nov. 30, 2014, Thielen won NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors.He finished the year ahead of Cordarrelle Patterson on the depth chart, and caught a 44-yard touchdown pass from Bridgewater in the season finale, but was confined mostly to special teams in 2015, when he played just 21.3 percent of the offensive snaps (against 59 percent of their special teams snaps) and was targeted with only 30 passes. His longest play last year was again in the season finale, on a 41-yard run, off a handoff on a fake punt against the Packers.
Thielen isn't likely to be graduating from special teams this year, but it's also becoming easier to see him occupying a larger role in the offense. If he does, it will be because of the mentality he developed while he seemed to be on borrowed time.
"I think he understands that, coming from where he came from and what he had to overcome, the competition is always going to be great for guys like him," Zimmer said. "Adam always kind of plays with a chip on his shoulder. He got into a little altercation [with Cincinnati's Adam Jones] down there [in joint practices] last week, but that's how he is."
Said Stewart: "You look at Isaac Bruce, you look at London Fletcher. Terrell Owens was a great special teams player. But those guys transitioned into great players. And Adam has transitioned into a good football player."