How Adam Thielen went from undrafted to All-Pro, and why more could be on the horizon

There were 26 wide receivers taken in the 2013 NFL draft, and Adam Thielen will never forget that he was not one of them.

So, as I quickly learned during a recent 20-minute phone conversation with the Minnesota Vikings star, if you’re looking for a reason why he has managed to become one of the game’s top — and highest-paid — receivers, this is as good a place to start as any.

Because even though his doubters have thinned out over the years due to all his success, this much is clear: He’s managed to maintain his hunger, his edge, by observing other great players over the years (ahem, Larry Fitzgerald), figuring out what makes them tick and emulating it.

“Obviously, they’re extremely athletic and all that, but at the end of the day, they are who they are because they bust their butt, they love this game and they have a fire. They want to prove, whether it be one doubter or a hundred, every single one of them wrong,” Thielen said. “So I think that’s what’s carried me to here, and it’s not gonna change for me.”

Adam Thielen points toward the camera to celebrate a touchdown.
Adam Thielen is moving into the Minnesota Vikings' top receiver slot with doubters to prove wrong and an abundance of offseason work to show off. (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Thielen, in fact, is so dedicated to proving people wrong that he’s even picked up one of Michael Jordan’s old tricks along the way.

“I might make up stuff sometimes to fire me up,” Thielen said with a laugh. “I think it’s natural for us athletes, you know? Sometimes you can just feel like someone’s doubting you, and like I said, who knows if it’s real or not, but you’re gonna make sure that you believe it’s real and it definitely gives you added [motivation]. … That’s why it’s fun to play this game and why Larry Fitzgerald is still playing, because he knows there’s people who are doubting him and he wants to prove them wrong.”

But Adam, you’re a two-time Pro Bowler. You’ve twice been named as one of the league’s top-100 players by your peers. And by the way, you’ve earned $27 million in your career, stand to earn nearly $60 million more and you’re now the Vikings’ undisputed No. 1 wideout following the offseason trade of fellow star receiver Stefon Diggs.

After all that, just who are these perceived doubters?

“It can be players, maybe, but most of the time, it’s probably people in management or coaches that maybe think you can’t do something,” Thielen said. “And at the end of the day, you have an opportunity to prove them wrong, so that’s kind of what I’ve always been working towards, just proving coaches or teammates wrong and saying, ‘Hey no, I can be that player and I can play in this league and I can play at a high level.’ ”

And just how much does this come to his mind?

“I think about that every day,” Thielen said.

Clearly. Which fully explains Thielen’s offseason, by the way. After a 2019 season in which he missed six games with a hamstring injury and caught six touchdowns but finished with 30 catches and 418 yards — his lowest totals since 2015 — Thielen didn’t need to create any doubters to work his tail off this offseason; the lack of production did that.

So when the offseason rolled around, and COVID-19 set in — essentially preventing Thielen and other players from not only reporting for organized training activities, but also working out under team supervision like they typically do in April — Thielen huddled with his trusted longtime trainer, Ryan Englebert of Elite Sports Performance, and devised a plan to somehow make it a positive.

“For the first time ever in my career, we had six months together to be able to become a better athlete, to become faster, strong, quicker, more explosive, things like that,” Thielen said. “And that’s kinda where I’m at — I had six months to really focus on that and not get grinded out or have to come into the building and grind myself out. I was able to really focus on recovery, nutrition and again, just becoming a better athlete. So that’s where I feel I’m at.”

Englebert’s facility is only 10 minutes away from Thielen’s home, and he’d go there practically every day this offseason for a couple of hours, eventually adding on-field drills where he ran routes and did conditioning drills twice a week. It’s tough to quantify the growth since then — he has no 40-yard dash time to report, no record-high lifts to share — but the proof, he says, is how he feels.

“It’s more so just, how I feel when I’m running routes,” Thielen explained. “Do I feel better in and out of my breaks? Am I able to be more explosive? Do I feel like I’m more explosive down the field? Things like that. And then again, it goes back to how does my body react, and how does it feel? Am I able to recover? Am I feeling good when I’m coming here and I’m getting three or four days of work in a row?”

The answer, thus far, is yes. A big reason for that is clearly Englebert’s focus on change-of-direction drills and lifting targeted on things Thielen needs to be able to do on the football field. It has benefitted the receiver so much the last eight years that he’s helped the trainer open 12 gyms across Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and New Jersey.

“It’s not to make me look like Hercules or have massive biceps or things like that — our only goal in the weight room is to become a better athlete,” Thielen said. “We want to bring that to as many kids as possible because we believe in it so much.”

But one thing Thielen also knows is that for all his optimism about the upcoming season, the proof will ultimately be in the pudding. His understanding of this fact, which he made clear many times during our conversation, is just one thing that made me bullish on his chances as a dark horse Comeback Player of the Year candidate.

The others? His ascension to the Vikings’ No. 1 receiver role, not to mention he’s expected to be the team’s primary vertical and red zone threat. Of course, his MJ-like zest for vanquishing doubters and his renewed zest following his offseason training don’t hurt, either.

“I know how I feel, I know where I’m at, but now I’ve got to go prove it,” said Thielen, who was understandably reticent to make any predictions about the type of year he’ll have. “And it’s something that we’ve talked about as a team this offseason. You can talk about winning the NFC championship, you can talk about going to a Super Bowl, you can talk about all that stuff and it sounds great, and you might feel like you have the team or the people to do it.

“But at the end of the day, you’ve got to go out there and prove it. And you can’t just go out there and prove it one day, you’ve got to prove it every single day.”

My hunch? With some injury luck, the Vikings’ newly minted No. 1 receiver will do just that in 2020.

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