How Minnesota Vikings WR Adam Thielen has found his niche in Justin Jefferson's world

Guess which Vikings receiver has the most touchdown catches over the past two seasons. If you picked Justin Jefferson, you'd be wrong. Adam Thielen's 24 TDs are topped only by Davante Adams and Mike Evans. Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire

EAGAN, Minn. -- The quarterback was in trouble. During a red zone drill early in training camp, Kirk Cousins stepped up in the pocket as the Minnesota Vikings' pass rush bore down. With a split second remaining before he was sacked, Cousins knew where to look. Receiver Adam Thielen was sprinting across the back of the end zone, a step ahead of cornerback Harrison Hand.

As he has so often in recent seasons, Cousins flipped the ball in the direction of Thielen, who caught it in stride for a touchdown. The improvised connection was a reminder of Thielen's wild career turn since the arrival of teammate Justin Jefferson in 2020.

Thielen's overall targets per game have understandably dropped over that span, but his scoring totals have soared. Only two NFL receivers have caught more touchdown passes than Thielen (24) since the start of the 2020 season: Davante Adams (29) for the Green Bay Packers and Mike Evans (27) for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The surge has nearly matched Thielen's scoring totals during his first six seasons combined (25).

As a result, he has amassed 312.2 fantasy points in non-PPR scoring -- No. 9 overall among receivers -- even while ranking No. 29 in total targets (199). As Jefferson emerged as the NFL's top young receiver, Thielen found a niche that matches neatly with the skills he has honed over time.

"He's always been strong with the football," Cousins said. "He has great natural hands, great body control, and he plays big. He plays big and strong, and he runs big and strong. That shows up in the red zone and in tight windows and in tight coverage."

Over that same span, in fact, Thielen ranked No. 3 in the NFL for catch rate over expectation, an NFL Next Gen Stats analysis of a player's ability to make lower-probability catches. But as strange as it might sound, it's never safe to assume that a veteran player's success will survive a coaching transition.

Thielen, for one, will turn 32 later this month. After he appeared in every game for each of his first five NFL seasons, he has missed 11 because of injuries over the past three. His contract, meanwhile, has no fully guaranteed money remaining after this season.

And as Jefferson reaches the brink of superstardom, No. 3 receiver K.J. Osborn is having a breakout training camp in his own right. Tight end Irv Smith Jr.'s recent thumb surgery hasn't diminished excitement about his pending contribution, giving Cousins another mouth to feed. But new coach Kevin O'Connell has embraced the ways Thielen can excel in his scheme -- in the red zone, in particular -- and Thielen hasn't been shy about about pointing out plays that worked well or were run in particular situations in the past. If training camp practices are any indication, the Vikings are doing everything they can to preserve the Cousins-Thielen scoring connection.

"The coolest part about it is the feedback," O'Connell said. "He's able to talk to me about, 'I know we’re coaching this like this, but have you thought about this route stem or this top of the route?' and that's where sometimes you say to yourself, 'Thank goodness we got players like that. Because what you said is better than what I said.' Let's do it that way. Other times, we're going to stick with my way. Either way, we have that conversation."

At the height of his career, when he was producing consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in 2017 and '18, Thielen saw 9.16 targets per game. Since the start of the 2020 season, that number has been about 22% lower (7.13).

His red zone targets, however, have actually increased slightly, from 1.06 in 2017-18 to 1.18 in 2020-21 -- a focus that O'Connell, Cousins and Thielen are all working to preserve this summer.

Thielen was initially stunned after encountering O'Connell's process-over-outcome approach to installing and revising his scheme, but the adjustment has led to some quick progress.

"Sometimes it almost feels awkward," Thielen said. "You're like, 'Is he not going to rip us? What's going on here?' And it has nothing to do with the old coaching staff we had here. That's how it's been my whole life, whether high school, college, first year in the NFL when I had a different coach. It's different, but it's exciting because it's like now we can go in there and we can teach. We can learn. Even if we do some things wrong, and have some mental errors, it's like, 'Hey, that wasn't OK, but let's focus on the process.'"

Regardless, Thielen knows he is on the back end of his career. In 2021, for example, you could count the number of receivers on one hand who were 32 or older and caught more than 40 passes: Cole Beasley, A.J. Green, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. None of them caught more than four touchdowns.

"I don't have 10 years left in my career, so yeah, I think there's a sense of urgency," Thielen said. "We have a really talented team. We have a great culture. We have great coaches. But at the end of the day, you don't want to lose site of the day-to-day mindset, which this coaching staff, this culture, has created."