Between Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson, and Dalvin Cook, the Vikings have an enviable amount of offensive firepower. Cousins, while not a perfect prospect, is more than capable of slicing and dicing opponents if conditions are right. Justin Jefferson is as good as it gets among the NFL’s young receivers. And Cook, despite the ever-declining value of running backs league-wide, remains a force.
And then there’s Adam Thielen, whose star has waned somewhat in Minnesota over the past few seasons. He’s still a valuable part of the Vikings offense, no doubt, but it’s unclear at this point exactly what he’ll be in new head coach Kevin O’Connel’s offense.
Thielen posted back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons in 2017 and 2018, piling up 2,649 yards and 13 TDs on 204 catches over that two-year span. He was well-regarded by some of the advanced metrics, too. He ranked ninth in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement numbers in 2017 and eighth in 2018, and Pro Football Focus ranked him as the ninth-best receiver in football in 2017 and the eighth-best the following year,
He did his damage those years primarily out of the slot; according to PFF, he ran more than half his routes out of the slot both seasons.
But that changed in 2019 — Thielen only appeared in 10 games, and when he was on the field, new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski deployed him as an outside receiver more than his predecessor John DeFilippo. And even though Stefanski jumped to Cleveland after 2019, Thielen’s snaps in the slot haven’t returned to their 2018 and 2019 levels.
That’s partly because of Justin Jefferson’s arrival, but not entirely. Jefferson has only played about 30% of his snaps as a slot receiver over his first two years in the league. That’s considerable but only slightly more than Thielen in the same span. Still, the timeshare approach seems to have sapped some of Thielen’s effectiveness, as have lingering injuries the past two seasons.
Slot usage aside, Thielen’s 2021 season was strange for other reasons, specifically in that he was used closer to the line of scrimmage than he ever was before. Thielen’s average depth of target (ADOT) last year was just 9.5 yards, half a yard lower than in 2018, his last elite season. For comparison, Randall Cobb, a consummate slot guy if there ever was one, had an ADOT of 10.5 yards last year.
In short, Thielen has declined due to injury and usage as the Vikings haven’t allowed him to do what he’s best at (in part for understandable reasons, such as having an excellent slot option in Jefferson) and have had him doing weird things instead.
So what is he in 2022?
That’s not entirely clear, but the Vikings clearly still value him. They restructured his contract to lower his cap hit for 2022 instead of cutting him outright, and the restructure worked in such a way that releasing him next season doesn’t save them all that much money. What’s the plan, then?
Well, head coach Kevin O’Connell likes him a lot, and that’s never a bad thing for a player’s prospects. O’Connell has spoken specifically about Thielen being a red zone weapon for the Vikings this year, which should be music to Vikings fans’ ears as Thielen has scored 20 touchdowns in the red zone over the past two seasons.
But red zone success, as O’Connell says himself, is as much a feel thing as it is a product of scheme, so that’s not super helpful when we’re talking about Thielen’s role this year and against the Packers. O’Connell plays things close to the vest, primarily offering platitudes like saying he wants to put Kirk Cousins in a position to “maximize what he does best, which happens to be what a lot of quarterbacks want to be able to do best, a quarterback-friendly system where they can have an attacking mindset, aggressive mindset.”
Wanting his players to do well is a pretty basic quality among head coaches, so that’s not super helpful, but given his background with the Rams, we can probably expect something similar to what we’ve seen from a lot of other coaches from the Shanahan/McVay tree. At the most basic level, that will probably mean a lot of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end), and some preseason analysis seems to bear that out.
Beyond that, Thielen himself says there’s a lot of diversity in the scheme.
“There’s a lot of different formations, moving guys around, putting guys in different spots,” Thielen told Vikings.com. “I think some of the route stuff is more player-friendly probably, just to be able to kind of just go out there and feel the game, play the game. There’s a lot more feel to it, rather than, ‘You gotta do this at this point, at this time.’”
Whatever the scheme ends up being, Thielen likely stands to benefit. He can still be effective when healthy (his eight-catch, 82-yard performance against the Packers in Week 11 last year should attest to that), and if O’Connell can find new ways for him to contribute, Thielen shouldn’t be counted out on a Vikings offense that has plenty of talent already.