By Matt Kelley (@Fantasy_Mansion)
Special to Yahoo Sports
The American Dream takes many forms in sporting life. Antonio Brown was homeless on the Miami streets before becoming the best receiver since Jerry Rice. Future Dolphins Ring of Honor inductee Cameron Wake went undrafted and played in Canada before become a waking nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. There are two equally unlikely tales playing out simultaneously in the Twin Cities this season.
Roots of Excellence
Few underdog stories compare to Adam Thielen’s journey to NFL stardom. Thielen was a multi-sport star in rural Minnesota. A smoldering desire to play basketball chilled his prospects for a full football scholarship. Thielen took a $500 scholarship to play at Division II Minnesota State Mankato where he became the school’s second most decorated receiver of all-time. Yet, despite posting over 1,000 yards in his final season, professional scouts were not compelled to visit. Thielen took a job selling dental equipment, though he and his family maintained conviction in his pro-worthy athletic gifts. His father funded a trip to a regional scouting combine, Thielen impressed Minnesota scouts, attended training camp, joined the Vikings as a special teams ace in 2014, and will be attending his first NFL Pro Bowl in 2018.
Case Keenum proclaimed his high-end ability to the world when he became the most prolific quarterback in NCAA history. Despite setting college football career marks in passing yards, completions, and touchdowns, scouts dismissed Keenum for all the wrong reasons. Too small. Weak conference. Injury prone. System quarterback. After going undrafted, like Thielen, Keenum stayed close to home securing a backup quarterback role with the Texans. Despite not face-planting in relief of Matt Schaub in his first professional season in 2013 (1,760 yards, 7.0 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions), Houston let Keenum sign with the Rams. Playing under Jeff Fisher on a talent-deficient roster, Keenum was set up to fail, producing more turnovers than touchdowns in St. Louis/Los Angeles.
Minnesota coaches and player personnel executives remained intrigued by the one-time college gunslinger. The Vikings signed him to backup Sam Bradford. Keenum became the starter early in the season after a Bradford knee injury, and this time supported by a healthy offensive line and the best wide receiver duo in the NFL, he is captaining the 10-2 Vikings as the team rolls toward the playoffs.
It took five-plus years to make it, but Thielen and Keenum, two undrafted and forgotten players, are living the American Dream. Interestingly, by ignoring scout-speak and focusing solely on the numbers, objective measurements suggest Thielen and Keenum were #GoodAtFootball all along.
At Minnesota State, the former high school basketball standout translated his athletic gifts into on-field production at a relatively early age. By his senior season, Thielen was utterly dominant, evidenced by a 45.9-percent (90th percentile) College Dominator Rating on PlayerProfiler.com. Thielen none-the-less languished early in his Vikings career. Lacking draft capital and upper-percentile speed and burst, Minnesota coaches started Mike Wallace and Greg Jennings and elevated Jarius Wright and Charles Johnson while a far superior talent percolated down the depth chart.
Keenum was a higher profile prospect than Thielen. Keenum is currently the NCAA’s all-time passing yards and touchdowns leader. Yet, entering the NFL as the most prolific college quarterback of all time afforded Keenum nothing at the next level. Standing 6-foot-1 without Drew Brees’ arm talent or Russell Wilson’s athleticism, scouts dismissed Keenum’s accuracy and touch, attributing his college production to a gimmick air raid-style scheme.
Positive Feedback Loop
Keenum is succeeding in every facet of the game and enjoying the ultimate underdog revenge season. He looks like his belongs among the NFL’s starting quarterback fraternity. So far this season, he has demonstrated excellent accuracy on play fakes and passes of 20 or more yards downfield. From red zone throws to completions under pressure, Keenum is top-15 in every advanced accuracy metric on PlayerProfiler.com.
Advanced Completion Percentage
Case Keenum 2017 Accuracy Metrics on PlayerProfiler.com
Pocket awareness and quickness are additional keys to Keenum’s professional success. Keenum leverages an 11.15 (79th percentile) Agility Score to slide around the pocket and scramble when pressured, which provides Thielen requisite time to go from merely open to wide open. Keenum’s rapport with Thielen creates a positive feedback loop allowing both players to dramatically exceed expectations in fantasy this season.
At age 27, Thielen quickly ascended to the pantheon of the NFL’s best wide receivers. After Thielen was top-5 in every key efficiency metric on PlayerProfiler from Target Premium to Catch Rate in 2016, he has been exceptionally efficient again this season. Perhaps more impressively, Thielen’s 2017 efficiency comes in the face of huge volume. He is the only NFL receiver with 5 or more receptions in each game this season, and last week, he became the first Minnesota receiver since Sidney Rice to surpass 1,000 receiving yards in a season.
Yards Per Pass Route
Yards Per Target
Contested Catch Rate
QB Rating When Targeted
Adam Thielen Year-Over-Year Efficiency on PlayerProfiler.com
New Vikings Paradigm
Keenum, a free agent to be, and Thielen are leading the Vikings’ offensive resurgence. Fantasy enthusiasts must recalibrate their long-term expectations for this duo. If Minnesota wins just one playoff game, their respective fates will crystalize and both players would likely return to key starting roles in 2018.
Welcome to America, Adam Thielen and Case Keenum.