Fantasy Court: The Case Against Adam Thielen in 2023 (Fantasy Football)
There are those of you who will be tempted to draft Adam Thielen this year. You might ask yourself, “Will it cost me that much? He’s being drafted in Round 14 on average.” You might look at the three-year, $25 million deal he signed with the Carolina Panthers and talk yourself into his salary equating to production. Nostalgia might even play a part, looking back at the 24 total combined touchdowns he registered in 2020 and 2021.
But the year is 2023, and the soon-to-be 33-year-old wide receiver isn’t the same player he was a few years ago. He’s on a new team with a new offense and a rookie quarterback, and the prime of his career behind him.
Don’t let Thielen’s draft price, new contract, or the memories of better days trick you into rostering the aging wideout.
Between 2016 and 2018, Thielen accumulated 3,616 receiving yards on 273 receptions. In the last four years, he totaled just 2,785 receiving yards on 241 receptions. He did finish as the WR8 in 2020, thanks to his 14 touchdowns, but that is an anomaly that won’t repeat itself in Carolina.
His 6.7 yards per target average in 2022 was the lowest of his career. The 10.2 yards per reception average was also the lowest of his career. He was tied for the sixth-most wide receiver red zone targets last year with 22 but scored just five touchdowns in the red zone. Don’t expect him to see 22 red zone targets this season.
Is there an upside case with Thielen being drafted in the double-digit rounds? Maybe. But I would rather bet on his second-round rookie teammate Jonathan Mingo, who is being drafted one spot ahead of him. Players like Rondale Moore, Darnell Mooney, and Van Jefferson are being drafted in the same vicinity, all of whom I believe provide better upside.
The Panthers added Miles Sanders in the offseason to take over backfield duties, a huge upgrade at the position. And in a time where controversy is swirling around about running back salaries, Sanders is being compensated on the higher end with $13 million guaranteed.
Furthermore, Frank Reich is the new head coach in town, and history shows that he loves to run the ball. From 2019 through 2021, the Indianapolis Colts, led by Reich, ranked in the top 10 in rushing attempts. In 2019, they were fifth in the league in rushing attempts, and that was before the arrival of Jonathan Taylor (Marlon Mack led the team with 247 rushing attempts).
It would go against the team’s identity to turn into a pass-heavy offense, especially with a rookie quarterback in Bryce Young. Expect the Panthers to utilize the run game extensively, meaning fewer opportunities for Thielen.
Thielen is the fourth-oldest player on the Panthers. Compare that to Mingo, who is the second youngest player on the roster at 22. Terrace Marshall Jr. is 23 years old. Laviska Shenault Jr. and Shi Smith are both 24 and the other WR acquisition this offseason, D.J. Chark, will turn 27 at the start of the season.
Yes, the veteran will see a fair share of time on the field, but clearly, he was brought in to help mentor the young receiving corps and provide stability for Young. His value will be seen more in the locker room than on the field.
Additionally, rookie quarterbacks have had difficulties maintaining high-end WR production for fantasy. Take a look at our own Kyle Borgognoni’s research from a few years ago on rookie QBs sustaining WR production. Using a 10-game, minimum of 200 pass attempts criteria, Kyle found that only five rookie quarterbacks supported WR1s. No offense to Thielen, but he is not Roddy White, Steve Smith, A.J. Green, or Reggie Wayne. Of the 53 qualified QBs that were researched, a WR3 or better occurred less than a third of the total, and those are names like Mike Evans, Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald, and Calvin Johnson, in addition to the ones listed above.
Since then, Joe Burrow helped support Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd to WR3 finishes in 2020 in 10 games played before tearing his ACL and MCL in Week 11. Keenan Allen finished as the WR14 that year with Justin Herbert. Marvin Jones and Jakobi Meyers barely squeaked in as low-end WR3s with Trevor Lawrence and Mac Jones in 2021, respectively. And that’s it.
Those players that did reach the WR3 or better threshold were also the clear WR1 for their teams, in addition to being highly-touted wideouts. It’s not even clear that Thielen is the WR1 for the Panthers with the high draft capital spent on Mingo, so history doesn’t favor him putting up startable fantasy numbers.
A shiny new deal is signed, and thoughts drift to big numbers on the field to match the big numbers on the contract. But look closer at the deal and don’t be fooled by the $25 million salary. Thielen will receive $10 million in the first year in what is for all intents and purposes a two-year deal. The Panthers could cut him after 2024 and it would cost them little in dead cap.
Don’t be tempted by his ADP. Take a chance on a younger player with more upside, in a better situation, with a more experienced quarterback.
It’s understandable to want to draft a player who has been a fantasy asset in the past. We’ve all been there. Don’t fall for the sentimental trap this time.