'Every day is the Super Bowl for me:' Adam Thielen is still hungry
We catch up with the Minnesota Vikings vet as he enters Year 10. He's still out to prove people wrong. Also inside, WR Juwann Winfree says there isn't a corner in the NFL who can guard him.
Nobody ever counts the practice squad year. It’s easy to forget how this all began for Adam Thielen.
Pull up his bio on Pro Football Reference and you won’t see “2013” listed because he didn’t play a game, let alone catch a pass.
“They skip over that,” he says.
Back then, Thielen had just finished a four-year career at Division-II Minnesota State, his only “scholarship” offer. (And this is written with Bennett Brauer-sized air quotes.) One coach told him the school had all of $500 to spend. Low on options, Thielen took it. The choice was either this or D-III football at a school like Concordia-Moorhead. His “scholarship” never improved either, so Thielen took out loans each year. Thielen essentially paid to play college football and did just enough as a senior (1,176 yards, eight touchdowns) to allow the delusion of pro football to enter his mind.
A time of 4.45 in the 40-yard dash at a regional combine in Chicago got him on the radar. He wasn’t one of the 26 receivers drafted in 2013 but — after accepting a job to sell dental equipment — the Minnesota Vikings handed Thielen a virtual lottery ticket in the form of a tryout. He took full advantage and managed to stick on the team’s practice squad all season.
Any money earned was used to pay off his student loans. He had zilch in his bank account.
He was engaged to his college sweetheart. The future was totally unknown.
Clearly, all of this became his edge.
A decade later, Thielen is entrenched as one of the greatest wide receivers in Vikings history and his football career is somewhat coming full circle. He turns 32 in August and would seem to be reaching the wide receiver tipping point. This is precisely when bodies begin to break down. As he said back when we first met for this Adam Thielen Experience story at B/R, teams all viewed Thielen as a “skinny white guy” initially. They sure could again because — spoiler alert — there aren’t many skinny white guys playing into their mid-30s at wide receiver. Yet, he’s still going strong. He’s still a go-to threat. Before an ankle injury derailed his season in Week 13, this was the same Thielen we’ve all come to expect in 2021. He finished with 67 receptions for 726 yards with 10 touchdowns in 13 games.
His nose for the end zone has aged like fine wine. The season prior, Thielen scored 14 touchdowns in 15 games. And of course Thielen supplied the catch of the day during the OTA practice I caught on this Vikings trip last month.
The cherry on top? He’s supplying invaluable leadership for the Vikings’ budding star at the position: Justin Jefferson.
The value of Adam Thielen to the Minnesota Vikings is undeniable. He makes it clear to everyone that he’s still attacking every day of practice like that D-II longshot. To him, it’s honestly not a matter of things full circle because this mentality has been more of a lifestyle since 2013.
“I’ve always had that mentality,” says Thielen from the Vikings’ sparkling new practice facility. “No matter what year I’m in, no matter what I did the year before, I’ve always had that mentality: ‘I’ve got something to prove.’ Someone’s doubting me. Whether it’s a coach or management or media. There’s always someone who doesn’t think I’m good enough to do this. I’m always out there trying to prove it to myself, too. I want to prove that I’m not a 32-year-old, washed-up receiver. I feel like I put in the work. I feel good. I can make plays. Sometimes, I get frustrated if I don’t perform at the highest level. I’ve always been that way because I want it so bad.
“I want to prove it, day-in and day-out. It’s June 1st today. There’s no game next week. But still it drives me crazy if I don’t have a great practice. That’s what drives me.”
He’s not sure how long he wants to play. Thielen will take it one season at a time.
There are not glaring signs of decay. While his yards per catch dipped last season to 10.8, he was still ultra-reliable in big moments. Few receivers in the sport navigate the sideline and the red zone like him.
The Vikings remain believers. By restructuring Thielen’s contract this offseason, they saved $5.2 million on the cap this year and possibly tied themselves to Thielen in 2023 (when he’ll be 33) and 2024 (when he’ll be 34). The cap hits then are substantial.
It would have been foolish to cut ties. As the Vikings usher in a new regime — one we’ll get to at length next month — Adam Thielen is exactly the type of voice you need. He has seen what works and what does not up close from Leslie Frazier to Mike Zimmer to, now, Kevin O’Connell. And O’Connell no doubt wants Thielen’s perspective in the building: a calloused wide receiver with zero business playing pro football still carrying himself like a starving UDFA.
The same year Thielen was kicking around on that practice squad, paying off those loans, the Vikings shelled out a whopping $47.5 million contract to Greg Jennings. This signature signing was designed to elevate third-year quarterback Christian Ponder to the next level and get the 10-6 Vikings over the top. It did not. The Vikes went 5-10-1, Ponder busted out, and Jennings faded away.
Jennings lasted only two years in Minnesota, one in Miami and was done at 32 years old.
You know, the same age Thielen will be when this 2022 season kicks off.
A lot has changed over the past decade. Thielen and his wife now have three children. He knows the challenge is slaying Father Time and promises he took this past offseason “to the next level.”
“I really honed in on my nutrition and my training and putting good people around me,” Thielen says. “I’ve been blessed to have a great trainer, mentor, friend in my business partner: Ryan Englebert at ETS. He’s been huge for my career. And he’s always trying to find ways to continue to grow and continue to make sure he’s putting me out there with the best chance to feel good, play good and be explosive.”
This should be a player-friendly offensive scheme, and that was not the case years prior. Even though Mike Zimmer was a defensive-minded head coach, his dark shadow tended to cast over the offense from OC to OC to OC to OC. Thankfully, he’s gone. O’Connell brings an innovative (if complicated) system over from the Los Angeles Rams with Minnesota hoping O’Connell can do for Kirk Cousins what Sean McVay did for Matthew Stafford. After 12 years of toiling in Detroit, the former No. 1 overall pick Stafford threw for nearly 5,000 yards with 41 touchdowns and won a Super Bowl.
It's early. Thielen says the Vikings are at the “9th grade-level math” stage of learning the playbook. Which, it should be noted, was akin to a slow, torturous death here in New York State with “Math A” and “Math B” back in the early 2000s. (Damn you, Regents Exams.) Nonetheless, the Vikings have a long way to go, Thielen says, to reach advanced calculus. To reach the level those Rams did in 2021.
Even Stafford was still figuring things out into December. A Nov. 28 loss in Green Bay dropped the Rams to 7-4, they won five in a row, the rest is history.
If they can grasp this all, a Vikings offense that was actually very good in 2021 could reach a new level. Thielen says O’Connell’s scheme makes a lot of plays “look alike” and “act alike.”
More than any diet, Thielen knows extending his own career is a matter of maintaining the same hunger he had back in ’13 and ’14. He has not forgotten that the team’s offensive coordinator then, Norv Turner, used to just put him on the field for running plays. Once he cracked the 53-man roster, it took a while for coaches to trust him. Year to year, this native son became one of Minnesota’s most beloved sports figures. Thielen should reach No. 4 on the team’s all-time receiving list by midseason. He’s only 467 yards away from Jake Reed. In two years, there’s a reasonable chance he passes Anthony Carter. That’d slot Thielen in at No. 3, right behind Hall-of-Famers Cris Carter and Randy Moss.
Not bad company at all.
The Vikings’ new bosses, GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell, could’ve nuked the roster and started over last spring. They did not. They’re trying to win in 2022.
A major part of that equation remains Thielen. (As it should.)
“Every day I come out here, I feel like I have to prove something,” Thielen says. “I have to prove I can make plays. I always have that underdog mentality of, ‘Hey, they don’t think I can do it’ or ‘I have to make the team today.’ I’ve always had that mentality. I feel like every day is the Super Bowl for me. I’ve got to go out there and win the Super Bowl. I feel like when you have that mentality — and you get to the game — this is no different from what I feel in practice. So, I hold myself to a high standard and it really frustrates me when I don’t hit that standard. But it happens a lot.”
He has no plans to click the cruise control on.
“You can’t in this league. It’s too competitive. They’re always trying to bring someone else in who’s younger, faster, more explosive. You have to prove it.”
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Juwann Winfree aiming to be ‘the best’
All of this should serve as inspiration for a wide receiver on the other end of the spectrum. Across the border, in Green Bay, Juwann Winfree is trying to make a name for himself. It’s wide open at his position. One through six, all jobs are sincerely up for grabs after the Packers lost starters Davante Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
He’s eager to make the same exact leap Thielen did. To him? Hell yes, it’s realistic.
We shared Winfree’s circuitous journey earlier this offseason. From being a four-star recruit in 2014 to getting the boot at Maryland to picking the pieces up at junior college to the Colorado Buffaloes to the Denver Broncos to — finally — the Packers, it’s been a long, long decade for Winfree. The man with eight career NFL receptions to his name did not lack confidence when we chatted back in March. “Sit back and watch,” Winfree told anyone panicking about the Packers’ receiving corps. Since then, the Packers drafted three wide receivers, signed the eccentric Sammy Watkins and held OTAs and minicamp.
So, I figured it was a good time to check back in with Winfree.
His confidence has only soared.
Yes, coaches did tell Winfree they see parts of Adams in his game… and he makes it clear he’s aiming to be one of the wide receivers in football.
“I think it’s more so the playmaking ability,” Winfree says. “Our game styles are a little different. He does body movements different than mine and I do some stuff different than him. But I think it’s the efficiency of our game, and what my game is developing into. Just getting open in a timely manner. Being able to manipulate a DB in different ways and understanding the game in that way. He’s great at getting open. He’s great at catching the ball and making plays and helping his team win. I think they see some of those aspects in what I was able to do in practice and what I was able to do in some of the games. The potential.
“I want to become one of the best route runners in the NFL. And I feel like there’s not a guy out there who can guard me. And if they do guard me, I think it’s on me. I feel like with my ability and how quick I can get in and out of breaks, the way I read DBs and the way I paint pictures in my head, I see that resemblance in us. I just want to be able to make my own name in this NFL. Be the next great.”
To be sure, this is when I told Winfree people will wonder what he’s smoking. It’s easy to dismiss such declarations. But similar to Chase Claypool labeling himself a top 3 receiver, this should be what every team wants out of their wide receivers.
The position is fueled by confidence. You need to extract a cornerback’s soul.
Winfree hasn’t had the chance to truly reveal his game in the pros, but that’s fine. He has confidence in abundance.
Where does this come from exactly?
“I think it’s my journey,” Winfree says. “The players I’ve gone against and the players I’ve been around. Growing up, I’ve had a lot of mentors and a lot of role models I looked up to. I had to learn to embrace who you are, embrace yourself. Stop trying to be somebody else. Really be comfortable in your own skin. I think being around a lot of Pro Bowlers in my young career. Emmanuel Sanders. Courtland Sutton. Davante. Tim Patrick. Stefon Diggs. Being around these guys, training around them, seeing how they work, seeing what they do in practice and how they translate it to the game and the corners I was able to go against — Chris Harris — day-in and day-out of practice, Jaire (Alexander), all of these big-time corners helped create the confidence.
“And then just the work I put in. I have a huge trainer. Drew Lieberman. He runs a page called Sideline Hustle. … The way I think. The way I approach. And my mentality. We train around some of the best guys in the NFL: Mohamed Sanu, Allen Robinson, we all train with this trainer and I’m seeing the success that they have and the things that they’re doing and it’s ‘I can do the same thing.’ It’s just a matter of having that confidence out there and playing clean. Being able to have the coaches’ trust so I can show it out there.
“You guys can look up some of the routes I had in college — USC. I have that type of game-breaking ability.”
He certainly does. I hadn’t seen this route before, but how Winfree turns this USC corner inside-out in the clip below could make anyone believe he has a chance.
A four-time MVP quarterback who NFL execs say is still the best quarterback in the sport should be able to maximize the potential of someone like Winfree. There will be growing pains. Obviously the identity of the offense must change — the Packers will be leaning on both Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon in the run game — but, as Winfree told us all, there is zero need to panic.
Bank on three or four from this group of receivers emerging in August to quell any fears.
You can listen to my full conversation with Juwann Winfree on the Go Long Podcast, downloadable here on both Apple and Spotify.
Here’s my only take on the Zach Wilson “news” that took the world by storm over the weekend: There are a lot of former quarterbacks thanking the heavens that Instagram didn’t exist in their playing days.
Bring on the NIL chaos in college sports. This reckoning has been a long time coming. For decades, the concept of the NCAA itself has been a farce. Everyone should read this story from 12 years ago by Taylor Branch. I don’t know what the solution is — obviously we’re seeing a Wild West play out — but colleges have been reaping the rewards of unpaid labor for far too long. Here’s a wacky prediction: Stanford Football becomes a national power in less than five years. Their alumni has the most money to throw around, right?
It’s July 12 and the Buffalo Bills still have not extended Jordan Poyer. The All-Pro safety is only saying great things about the organization. Time is ticking as training camp nears. It’s hard to believe he still hasn’t been paid what he’s worth.
Love seeing Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan among the 54 seniors, coaches and contributors named as Hall of Fame semifinalists. Both won far too many games through the NFL’s golden age, the 1990s. Holmgren helped revitalize a dead franchise with GM Ron Wolf, while Shanahan revolutionized offensive football. One man’s opinion, but I’d take both of these coaches over two coaches who are already in, Dick Vermeil and Bill Cowher.
Maybe the Seattle Seahawks are publicly saying all of the right things about their current quarterbacks. The gut feeling here is that they’ll make a run at Jimmy Garoppolo. Let’s not forget Pete Carroll and John Schneider singing Kumbaya with Russell Wilson at the podium one year ago when it was painfully obvious the relationship between team and QB had fractured behind the scenes. Seattle knows it needs to improve at the most important position. If Garoppolo’s health checks out, this makes too much sense. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reports that the team has had internal discussions about Garoppolo. The Seahawks could wait for the 49ers to release the quarterback outright or maybe the two NFC West rivals do find a way to execute a trade. While rare, we have seen teams move quarterbacks within the same division before. The Eagles traded Donovan McNabb to the Washington Redskins in 2010. The Patriots traded Drew Bledsoe to the Buffalo Bills. Neither trade came back to bite them.
My good pal Don Pompei wrote an excellent story about Von Miller heading to the Buffalo Bills over at The Athletic.
For good reason, most people are skeptical that the Chicago Bears will be any good this season. While ownership wisely moved on from Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy, the new front office didn’t add much talent around second-year quarterback Justin Fields. This may be the worst receiving corps in the NFL. At least this should give fans a dose of hope. Former NFL GM Scott Pioli offered a ringing endorsement of new Bears GM Ryan Poles on NFL Network. Pioli says Poles has “extremely strong emotional intelligence,” and detailed how quickly Poles was promoted to college scouting coordinator under him.
Miss our Happy Hour with Wyatt Teller? You can catch the video here or the audio on Apple and Spotify. Thanks to all who made it. Be sure to let me know who you want to hang out with at email@example.com.
Killer journalism here, Ty!
I can't stand Thielen. Animated when he makes a play and moving the chains. He isn't supposed to be a problem, he's just an UFA is what I thought for years as he made big plays routinely. I can't stand him because he is exactly the kind of player I'd root for if he was on the Packers.