Through the first 10 weeks of the 2018 NFL season, it's likely that no player's presence in the national consciousness has risen as much as that of Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen. Thielen was one of the NFL's best receivers in 2017, racking up 91 catches for 1,276 yards and four touchdowns, but he absolutely exploded early in 2018, setting an NFL record by beginning the season with eight consecutive 100-yard receiving games.
That streak came to an end in Week 9 as he recorded merely four catches for 22 yards and a score during a blowout win over the Lions, but the end of the streak does not nearly come close to ending Thielen's time in the spotlight. In fact, it might be just beginning, because Thielen is a 28-year-old receiver who has seemingly perfected his craft over the past couple seasons.
"At some point last year I said, 'Alright, enough with the story. Enough with the kid from Minnesota whose dream it was to play ball,'" CBS' The NFL Today studio analyst Nate Burleson says. "It's a cool story, but you know what's cooler? The fact that he's dominating at the professional level at a position that's stacked with talented guys."
And Thielen sure is dominating. In nine games, Thielen leads the NFL with 78 catches, just 13 off the career-high he set a year ago. He's on pace to catch 138 passes for the full season, which would be the second-most in NFL history. His seven touchdowns are already the most he's ever scored in a season. And it's not just volume. The NFL has tracked targets since 1992. During that time, there have been 1,054 instances of a wide receiver or tight end being targeted at least 100 times in a season. Thielen's current 75.7 percent catch rate ranks NINTH among that group of 1,054 players. That's inside the top 0.1 percent.
No matter where you search for analysis on how Thielen has taken his game to the next level, the focus is always on one thing: route-running. But just saying "route-running" is too simple. There are so many components to running a good route. "It's what he does at the line of scrimmage, what he does to make every route look the same, what he does to come in and out of the breaks, and knowing how and when to catch the ball in situations on the field," Burleson says.
Watching Thielen's work on tape, all of this shows up in spades. The technical proficiency Thielen displays even on simple slant routes is nearly unrivaled. Consider the video below, where he absolutely fries poor K'Waun Williams of the 49ers and P.J. Williams of the Saints with the kind of footwork that they would show on instructional videos. (Thielen is No. 19 in purple, lined up in the right slot in both clips.)
"Oftentimes, receivers gauge themselves and try to hold back so they can burst at the top of the route or they can save their speed for the next play if it's a decoy route. Some receivers, quite frankly, mail it in. Not Thielen," Burleson says. "They say, 'Beat the drum.' As if a guy is sitting there and hits you with a drumsticks, 'tap-tap-tap.' Certain receivers in this league, they'll go give, sometimes even seven steps. They'll start pitter-pattering their feet as if they're getting ready to dunk the ball on the basketball court, then they'll finally come out of their break, which are all tell-tale signs that you're about to stop. And for Thielen, who doesn't want to give away an ounce of advantage to the defender, he's making sure that everything looks the same at the line of scrimmage, everything looks the same when he gets off the ball, and then, I'm as quick as I need to be out of my break which ultimately gives me the best opportunity to catch the ball."
Thielen has the enviable ability to make every single route look exactly the same right up until the moment it isn't. That skill is valuable not just because it helps him get open on a play-to-play basis, but also because it allows the Vikings to send him out on a route that looks like it's going to be one thing, but then turns into another.
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For example, early in Minnesota's game against the Cardinals back in Week 5, Thielen lined up in the right slot and ran a whip route against linebacker Hasaan Reddick. He did what he usually does against a linebacker: smoked him off the line of scrimmage and out of the break, and picked up nine of the 10 yards needed for a first down. (There is nobody in the NFL right now who runs this particular route better than Thielen. It is all over his tape and it's just ridiculous how difficult it is to cover him on it.) Watch how that route set up Thielen's touchdown later in the same game, when he was working on linebacker Josh Bynes in the left slot. Everything looks exactly the same right up until Thielen breaks up the field instead of back outside, and Bynes is simply toast.
Of course, Thielen doesn't just go to work against linebackers. His footwork at the top of his routes, right when he is about to break, does not give anything away about which way he's going to turn. And because he's so often lined up in the slot, he has the freedom to break inside or out.
"When you're in the slot, you have a whole playground to work with. You're like a kid at recess. It's hard for a guy who's sitting as a nickel back to stop you because he has no idea where you're going." Burleson says. "'You know what, we'll just put one guy on Thielen and let's just hope that he holds him.' Nah. If you put Adam Thielen against your nickel back, I'm taking Adam Thielen. You've got to figure on average the nickel back on each team isn't the team's best corner. And on average, usually the nickel back isn't the team's second-best corner. Adam Thielen goes in the game saying, 'I'm not just one of the best receivers on my team. I'm one of the best receivers in the NFL.' One of the best receivers in the game going up against the third cornerback on this team, I'm gonna take my chances with Thielen."
No matter if it's Williams, Morris Claiborne, or the aptly-named Nickell Robey-Coleman, Thielen is going to win on that route because he's better off the line and better on the break, and because he knows where he's going (and so does Kirk Cousins) and you don't.
And it's not like you can just bump your No. 1 corner down inside with Thielen, who runs approximately 60 percent of his routes in the slot. Doing so just opens up more opportunities for Stefon Diggs, who is even quicker than Thielen and perhaps more explosive, if not necessarily as technically sound. And it opens up opportunities for Kyle Rudolph, a big-bodied tight end who excels in the red zone. And when he's healthy, it opens up opportunities for Dalvin Cook to catch passes out of the backfield.
And so when he lines up inside, Thielen often just gets to cook against inferior corners. And not just inferior corners, but smaller corners.
"If you're Kirk Cousins, you know a guy like Thielen, at his size -- standing 6-1 and some change, 6-2 and change in cleats -- that's a tough guard for anybody on defense," Burleson says. "You can move him around in different formations or have him behind the line of scrimmage which allows the quarterback to identify what defense they're in and the wide receiver to catch a full head of steam before he burst off the line of scrimmage, like a CFL receiver. And that's very different for DBs to guard. If you have these aggressive DBs, you give your wide receiver a chance to be off the ball which grants them the luxury of having a few extra yards of cushion which gives you more space to work your release moves. Put that same receiver in motion, now if there's a guy going with him, he's almost as good as burnt toast."
Doing things line lining Thielen up off the line of scrimmage almost gives him too much of an advantage. Watch the plays below, where Thielen gets a free release, sets up his man, suddenly breaks, and is as wide open as you'll ever see a player in their lives.
Even all of Thielen's technical mastery isn't always enough. Because in the NFL, you also need to be able to make contested catches. You're not always going to have several feet of space -- even if you're Thielen, who averages three yards of separation at the time of the catch, per NFL.com's NextGen Stats.
"He has some of the strongest pass-catching abilities," Burleson says. "And I don't want to just say hands because it's easy to say a guy has good hands. What makes Thielen's hands better than most? One, he knows when to use those hands. He'll go and snatch it with them bright gloves that he has on, right out of the air. There's times that he'll do a combination where it's hands and a little bit of body, so you're grabbing it with your hands but also trapping it with some part of your body. And then there's times that he knows he's in traffic and he has to go and catch that ball with his chest and take a hit.
"Because you can't catch every ball with your hands. It's foolish to think that. I don't care how big and how strong your hands are. If you go up and the ball is somewhere out of your catch radius and the ball is barely in the grasp of your finger tips and you take a big shot, that ball's coming out. But if you know that you're in traffic and position your body so that the ball isn't outside of your catch radius and you position your body so that you absorb the ball and the hit simultaneously, it leads to you coming down with the rock."
Consider the video below, which shows off everything single thing Burleson is talking about. In the first clip, Thielen snags a ball thrown outside his catch radius, spins and pulls the ball into his body and covers up to absorb a hit and maintain control. In the second, Thielen uses his body to shield off a defender and lets the ball drop into his hands on a throw over the top. In the third clip, he just straight up Mosses P.J. Williams. Then he uses a late arm-bar to wield off a defender and create space in order to catch the ball inside his body. In the final clip, he breaks toward the outside and snatches the ball at its highest point before quickly pulling it in and absorbing a hit.
It's not often that a receiver is just really, really good at absolutely everything involved in playing the position. Even some of the best players have flaws. Thielen surely does too, but they don't show up very often. He's put in the work to get to this point, where he is at the absolute top of his game, an every-week monster who can win at every single stage of every single route, every single play. He will beat you off the line. He will beat you on his break. And even if you somehow manage to stay with him through both of those stages, he will beat you at the point of the catch. Right now, he's just impossible to cover.