One of the best stories in the NFL, Adam Thielen’s improbable run with his hometown Minnesota Vikings came to an end this morning as the team released him. At 32 years old, Thielen proved he still had some gas left in the tank in 2022, posting 70 receptions for 716 yards and six touchdowns. According to reports, the Vikings will save $6.41 million in cap space by cutting Thielen and although both parties considered restructuring his deal to keep him in the Gopher State — where Thielen was born and went to college — the WR allegedly wanted an opportunity to compete for a Super Bowl in an offense that would use him more.
Thielen is the second Vikings’ star to be released this week, after Eric Kendricks was cut Monday. Thielen will test unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. He has the third-most receptions (534) and receiving touchdowns (55) — behind Cris Carter and Randy Moss — and fourth-most receiving yards (6,682) in team history.
But going into his age-33 season, can Thielen still provide value for a team looking to compete for a Super Bowl? And if not, how bad a move is it to leave a team that had Thielen operating as their WR2 if Thielen truly wants to stay relevant?
Thielen clearly isn’t the receiver he once was. Despite playing in more games last season than he has any other year, Thielen couldn’t outpace his 2021 season in yards, touchdowns, or receptions. So, if Thielen truly does want to play for a team that will use him more than the Vikings, which team is going to go after the soon-to-be 33-year-old receiver whose numbers are rapidly declining? Why would anyone?
Some people might look at Thielen’s advanced metrics, such as average separation, and be optimistic about Thielen’s ability to produce. In 2022, Thielen averaged 1.77 yards of separation per reception, which is the best mark of his career. However, that’s still not a huge amount of space, ranking outside the top-45 in the NFL. And to make matters worse, Thielen’s contested catch rate continues to drop. It’s fallen from 48 percent in 2020, to 40.7 percent in 2021, to just 22.2 percent in 2022. If a receiver can’t get away from his man, he needs to be able to make catches in traffic, but Thielen just can’t provide that skillset anymore.
What he still brings to the table
Thielen does still have some value though. For one, he’s very good at finding holes in zone coverage. When one individual player is assigned to Thielen, the wideout can struggle to get away. But give Thielen an area to stand in, and he’s much better at finding the ball. He averaged almost a full yard of separation more against zone than man coverage in 2022 — 1.43 separation yards against man compared to 2.33 separation yards against zone). Basically, any offense that tries to put forth a traditional passing attack (not reliant on quick screens, half-field reads, etc.) could use Thielen in niche circumstances.
However, that’s not what Thielen wanted. He wants to be used more than the Vikings were using him, and I’m not sure that’s on the table anymore. The wide receiver position has become so deep in the NFL nowadays, and with offenses becoming much shorter and reliant on yards after the catch, scheming receivers open, and taking the top off defenses, Thielen doesn’t really fit in many offenses anymore. Regardless, I’m sure some team will go after the two-time Pro Bowler.
Thielen may be best served to join a team like the Kansas City Chiefs, although I’m not sure they’d be willing to do the same. They’re reportedly very interested in re-signing JuJu Smith-Schuster, who operates with the same skills as Thielen, but does it slightly better — to be expected given Smith-Schuster’s age. Now, that doesn’t mean the Chiefs wouldn’t like an additional threat for Mahomes to throw to, but with rumors swirling about Mecole Hardman’s future in KC, odds are the Chiefs will look to fill the role Hardman left with someone similar to him. They did just win the Super Bowl after all. If they lose key contributors, it would be in their best interest to keep their team as close to the same as possible. Hardman is a very different receiver than Thielen.
Does he have anything left? And who’ll take a chance?
Frankly, the market for a veteran receiver with low agility is pretty thin. Shocking, I know! Other teams that could be interested include the Denver Broncos as trade rumors concerning receivers Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton heat up. The New Orleans Saints have a very inexperienced receiving corps and Jarvis Landry is a free agent. As long as Michael Thomas stays off the field with a bruised toenail or whatever new injury is keeping him sidelined, Thielen could immediately slide into the team’s No. 2 role behind Chris Olave with new quarterback Derek Carr. The Arizona Cardinals are reportedly shopping DeAndre Hopkins, and while the team has several receivers built for deep shots and YAC, new head coach Jonathan Gannon could be interested in adding a smart vet with a different skill set or building a different type of offense than what Kliff Kingsbury had built. That’s not a sure thing though. Plus, if Adam Thielen wants to compete for a championship as well, the Saints and Cardinals don’t fit the bill.
This is a real “have your cake and eat it too” situation for Thielen. I highly doubt he’ll get everything he wants. That said, Thielen can still be a valuable asset for several teams. He just probably won’t get the usage or money he wants.