Adam Thielen: From undrafted free agent to NFL star

Adam Thielen has quite the story, and Minnesotans know it well. The Detroit Lakes native made it his dream to play in the NFL. Selling dental equipment was his back-up plan.

Now entering his sixth season with his hometown team, Thielen started his football career as an undrafted free agent out of Minnesota State-Mankato. He’s now one of the best and highest-paid receivers in the NFL.

Thielen solidified his future in Vikings’ purple earlier this week, signing an extension that will keep him in Minnesota through the 2024 season. He’ll earn a reported $64 million over four years, with a chance to earn up to $73 million if he meets certain incentives.

The money puts Thielen in line with the top receivers in football, but he said it wasn’t about money.

“It was just about being in the spotlight that my family and I wanted to be. To be locked up for a long time and to show obviously that we’re willing to do what it takes to be here and to have the opportunity to give back. That’s what it’s been about the whole time,” Thielen said. “It’s never been about the money or anything like that, it’s just about having the opportunity to be here for a long time and to use those resources to give back.”

He’ll get the opportunity to do more of that through a charity he created with his wife, Caitlin, appropriately called the Thielen Foundation. They’ve formed a partnership with the Behavioral Unit in the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Children’s Hospital.

Thielen has also formed ETS Performance, a workout facility based in the south Twin Cities metro for athletes preparing to compete at various levels. It’s a popular spot for future NFL hopefuls, which this year included former Gophers linebacker Blake Cashman.

His success story on the field was created by pure hard work, and a relentless mentality to not give up. Vikings officials like to look at undrafted college free agents from Minnesota, and they couldn’t help but be impressed by Thielen as a rookie.

“I don’t know if there’s ever been a success story like Adam Thielen. The minute he walked onto that field at Winter Park, you could tell this guy had a chance to be something. He’s a great example for all those kids out there who say dreams don’t come true,” Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said. “You may not be the biggest or the fastest or the most recognized, but you can’t measure a person’s heart. What Adam Thielen brings to this football team not only is his natural ability, but a lot of heart.”

One teammate who is especially happy he stayed goes against him in practice on a weekly basis. Harrison Smith said he deserves every penny.

“His story is a really cool one to watch and be a small part of. Very happy for him. Adam Thielen didn’t get drafted, now he’s one of the highest paid receivers in the league,” Smith said.

Thielen started to establish himself as a star-caliber wide receiver three years ago. He had 69 catches on 92 targets for nearly 1,000 yards and five touchdowns.

In 2017, 91 catches on 142 targets for 1,276 yards and four touchdowns. He also helped lead the Vikings to the NFC title game and was one loss short of the Super Bowl in his home state.

Last season, a career year. Thielen finished with 113 catches on 153 targets for 1,373 yards and nine touchdowns. That was in one season with a new quarterback in Kirk Cousins. If Cousins threw it anywhere in the vicinity of Thielen, just consider it a catch and move the chains.

And he’s durable. Thielen has taken plenty of big hits, but has started 44 of the team’s 50 games the last three seasons.

So what makes Thielen good?

“I think it’s a question I’ve probably gotten two dozen times as I’ve been here: What makes Adam Thielen good? Well you name a receiver trait, and he’s good at it. Maybe the reason he’s good is because he’s not bad at stuff. He’s fast, he’s got agility, he catches the ball well, he’s smart, he’s competitive. I don’t know what his weakness is,” Cousins said. “People ask the question because they feel like he’s not that good, so they feel like there must be some secret sauce that he has that makes him good. He’s a really good player in every area so that’s why he’s a good receiver.”

The first thing Thielen will tell you is there’s always something he can get better at, something the Vikings can improve in offensively.

Kyle Rudolph was entering his third season with the Vikings when Thielen came into rookie minicamp as an undrafted free agent in 2013. Thielen spent that season on the practice squad, but saw his first NFL action the next year. Rudolph watched him blossom from a longshot special teams player to becoming one of the top receivers in football.

“It’s awesome, just his whole story and to have been here the whole time to see how hard he worked to make the team,” Rudolph said.

Now that he’s going to get the money, Thielen wants a ring. He also wants to give back to the community.

“Championships are what it’s about, and maybe a little bit too just feeling appreciated. It’s all about winning, it’s all about giving back, it’s all about being in a situation that you feel comfortable in. When you find a locker room like we have and you have guys like that, you don’t want to go somewhere else,” Thielen said. “That’s what my family and I are most excited about.”

It’s a safe bet that Vikings fans are excited to watch him make more tough catches for at least four more seasons.