Mark Reis/Associated Press
Adam Thielen's body is nearly horizontal, almost parallel to the playing field, hovering in the air for a split second with an errant pass in his outstretched hands.
It's 3rd-and-13 in the third quarter. The Vikings are struggling to pull away from the lowly Cardinals. Kirk Cousins, poster child for quarterback salary inflation, has already thrown an interception under pressure and been strip-sacked for a Cardinals touchdown. Now he's uncorked this wobbler in Thielen's vicinity while enduring yet another blow from a defender.
Fortunately for Cousins and the Vikings, Thielen leaps and snags the sinking pass like a third baseman nabbing a line drive. He hauls it into his belly, knees scraping the inbounds turf, for a critical third-down conversion.
A few plays later, Cousins is again in jeopardy, with defender Benson Mayowa about to drag the quarterback down by the scruff of his neck. Cousins recovers enough to jettison the ball, and there's Thielen again, gobbling up the short pass as a linebacker climbs over his back.
On the next play, the Vikings go hurry-up, forcing a poor mismatched linebacker to cover Thielen in the slot. One stop-and-go stutter-step later, Cousins and Thielen connect for their fourth touchdown of the season, making it look easy for once.
It was another 100-yard receiving game for Thielen, his sixth in six games, and another averted crisis for the Vikings, who climbed to 3-2-1 after a rough start to the season.
Given that Thielen is a former undrafted rookie and nobody-gave-him-a-chance guy from Minnesota State who rose slowly from the Vikings special teams to a featured role, he may be permanently stored in your gritty, old-school, blue-collar, sneaky-fast white guy mental bin, perhaps in Jordy Nelson's former slot. (Or maybe it's because that's the way broadcast teams like to describe him, which they often do when it comes to white wide receivers.)
But he's not.
Thielen leads the NFL in receptions (58), yards (712) and yards per game (118.7). He's on pace to catch 155 passes this season, shattering Marvin Harrison's 2002 single-season record of 143 catches.
Unlike Harrison, Thielen doesn't have Peyton Manning to work with. Instead, Thielen has been making the reputations of—and making lots of money for—his quarterbacks the last three seasons. And he's doing so for the low, low price of just $19.2 million over four years.
It all started in 2016, when Thielen burst on the scene after two years on the bench to lead the Vikings with 967 receiving yards. Thielen caught 75.0 percent of the passes thrown to him that year, a remarkable figure for a receiver averaging 14.0 yards per catch, as opposed to someone who catches mostly screens and dump-offs.
It was a performance that helped then-Vikings QB Sam Bradford set a single-season completion percentage record that year. Bradford, of course, is a master of converting marginal success into huge sums of money. The Cardinals signed him to a two-year, $40 million contract this offseason expecting an efficient veteran. Separated from Thielen (and Stefon Diggs, a fine multidimensional receiver in his own right), Bradford went back to completing four-yard passes on 3rd-and-16 until he was benched.Thielen's elite pass-catching skills made a surprise star last season out of Case Keenum, who signed a lucrative free-agent deal to play in Denver this year.Adam Bettcher/Getty Images
Case Keenum replaced Bradford in Minnesota and became the surprise star of 2017, throwing for 3,547 yards and 22 touchdowns. Thielen caught 91 passes for 1,276 yards, but his impact on Keenum and the Vikings went far beyond the usual go-to receiver role.
Analytics revealed that Keenum's breakout year was full of hot air. Football Outsiders determined that Keenum benefited from a league-high 15 deep completions on inaccurate throws—in other words, plays where the receiver saved his bacon. Fifteen big plays by receivers can work wonders for a quarterback's statistics and reputation. Keenum was largely a product of Thielen and his other surroundings.
The Broncos ignored the warning signs that they were getting fool's gold and signed Keenum for two years and $36 million. Keenum ranks 28th in passer rating and is in danger of getting benched.
The Vikings upgraded from Keenum to Cousins for the super-premium price of $84 million over three years. Cousins is a better quarterback than either Keenum or Bradford. But if not for Thielen, the Cousins signing might already look like an expensive mistake.
Cousins has targeted Thielen on 31.2 percent of his throws; Thielen has caught 71.6 percent of the passes thrown to him. He's the guy Cousins looks for when the pocket collapses, which is often. He's the Vikings' top third-down weapon, responsible for 14 of Cousins' 32 successful conversions. He's also the Vikings' top deep threat—Diggs averages 10.9 yards per catch this season; Thielen, 12.3—as well as the go-to guy on receiver screens when the Vikings need to keep the defense honest.
Cousins is playing well. But like Keenum and Bradford, he's getting a catch or two per game from Thielen other quarterbacks could only hope for: that 3rd-and-13 dive against the Cardinals, a game-tying last-minute touchdown (save the needed two-point conversion) against the Packers, big plays to sustain drives and flip field position against the Eagles.
The Vikings might be 3-3 or 2-4 with a lesser receiver than Thielen. That would place Cousins under the microscope instead of in the end zone performing borrowed dance routines.Through the season's first six weeks, Thielen leads the NFL in catches and yards.Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Other receivers impact the game and elevate their quarterbacks as much as Thielen. Antonio Brown, certainly. DeAndre Hopkins. Julio Jones, if you ignore the end-zone allergy. Odell Beckham Jr., in between the headaches. Michael Thomas, though Drew Brees doesn't need to make much more of an impact or elevation.
That's about it. And all of the receivers above are in the $14-million-per-year-or-more tax bracket except Thomas, who is still on his rookie contract. Even Diggs is in the salary penthouse. Thielen's annual salary places him among guys like Torrey Smith, Ryan Grant and Jermaine Kearse: No. 2 receivers, role players, high-effort try-hard guys.
Finding inequities in NFL salaries is like finding sand on a beach. Thielen will get a big payday someday, though never as big as the ones for quarterbacks he made leaping catches for. He also has a good chance to earn a Super Bowl ring, which is the point of all this football stuff, not stats and salaries.
But the NFL revolves around quarterbacks. Coaches and execs are hired and fired because of their evaluations of quarterbacks. Whole segments of the media, gambling and fantasy industries are devoted to analyzing and debating the merits of quarterbacks.
A receiver like Thielen can make a bad quarterback look good and a good one great. He can and has been overlooked because he lacks a big media market, big reputation or big salary.
If he keeps going at his usual rate, though, Thielen won't be able to help but break out of the pesky try-hard category and into the great wide receiver category. It's long overdue for someone who has carved a reputation as the secret weapon, best friend and meal ticket for three different quarterbacks.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.
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