The Path to a WR1 Fantasy Football Season: Adam Thielen

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Editor’s Note: This profile is part of our annual Path to a Fantasy WR1 Season series. For our methodology and an outline of the process, make sure you read the 2021 Path to WR1 Series Primer.

Just like Andy last year, I was a Justin Jefferson truther. I picked him up on the waiver wire after week one and rode him to a championship. In my opinion, Jefferson will continue to win people championships this year as the Vikings WR1. However, there is another WR in Minnesota that people are slowly forgetting about – Adam Thielen. Thielen is currently sitting at WR21 in the consensus rankings.  Let’s take a look at how Adam Thielen can have a WR1 fantasy season in 2021.

Thielen Goovy: The 2020 Season

Before we look forward, let’s look back on the 2020 season for Adam Thielen. Thielen had a highly productive 2020 season, finishing as the 8th WR overall, just two spots behind his teammate Justin Jefferson. He finished with just over 900 receiving yards and a whopping 14 touchdowns – he was the recipient of 42% of the WR targets for the Vikings and accounted for 70% of their WR touchdowns. Theilen was on the field for 92% of snaps and was a vital piece of the Minnesota Vikings passing attack.

So what needs to happen for Adam Thielen to be a top-12 WR in the 2021 season?

TD Percentage

When ranking Adam Thielen this season, the most common concern is that there is no way that he can sustain his touchdown percentage. Thielen had 108 total targets in 2020, and by converting 14 of them to touchdowns, he had a touchdown conversion percentage of almost 13% – he was Kirk Cousins’ go-to guy in the red zone.

To put this into perspective, I took the top ten finishing WRs and, using their targets, receptions, and touchdowns, calculated their touchdown conversion percentage. I included the percentage based on targets and of actual receptions.

Finish Player Receiving Receptions Receiving Targets Receiving Touchdowns TD conversion % by receptions TD conversion % by targets
1 Davante Adams 115 149 18 15.7 12
2 Tyreek Hill 87 135 15 17.2 11.1
3 Stefon Diggs 127 166 8 6.3 4.8
4 Calvin Ridley 90 143 9 10 6.3
5 Deandre Hopkins 115 160 6 5.2 3.8
6 Justin Jefferson 88 125 7 7.9 5.6
7 D.K. Metcalf 83 129 10 12 7.8
8 Adam Thielen 74 108 14 18.9 12.9
9 Tyler Lockett 100 132 10 10 7.6
10 Mike Evans 70 109 13 18.5 11.9

As you can see, Adam Thielen had the highest touchdown conversion percentage of the top ten WRs. I am the first one to admit that his touchdown rate has a strong chance to decrease but by how much?  Even if Thielen was targeted approximately the same amount this season as he was last, he could catch half as many touchdowns and still have a better target-to-touchdown ratio than Stefon Diggs had last season.

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Targets & Yards

To compensate for a potential touchdown regression in the 2021 season, Thielen’s number of yards caught would need to increase, and therefore more targets would need to go his way. I foresee this happening. Last season 24% of the receiving targets went Theilen’s direction, and 26% went to Jefferson. This leaves half of the targets – 252 last season – sprinkled amongst Dalvin Cook and other pass catchers. After such a successful year in 2020, I believe Cousins will target Thielen more, especially with Justin Jefferson’s proven talent drawing more double coverage. Perhaps this is one reason Cousins went Thielen’s way so many times in the red zone last season. Thielen’s target share has always been consistent, so in my opinion, there is no reason to doubt that the same will not continue in 2021. Before that 24% share in 2020, it was 18% in 2019 (injured for six games),  26% in 2018, and 27% in 2017.

Solid QB Play

Solid QB play from Captain Kirk Cousins is vital if Thielen has a chance to be a WR1 again this season. Last season Cousins finished as the 11th fantasy QB with a consistency reminiscent of Justin Tucker’s leg. Cousins was a top 12QB over 56% of the time in 2020 and was a top 24QB over 87% of the time. And I do not believe we have a reason to doubt that the 2021 season will be any different. In the last six seasons, Cousins has not finished any lower than QB 18, playing all sixteen games. The essence of the question is, can Kirk Cousins again sustain two top-12 fantasy WRs? As long as Cousins continues on this trajectory, the answer from me is yes.

Health

Another important key to Thielen having a WR1 season is staying healthy and being on the field. In Thielen’s last five seasons, he only had one season where he was not a top 30 WR. This was the 2019 season where he missed six games due to a hamstring injury. In the other four seasons, he played 15 or 16 games – it seems that when he is on the field, he gets consistent targets. Thielen will turn 31 in August and will be playing his 8thseason in the NFL this year.  I have heard from many a naysayer that WR’s seem to peak in their late 20’s and begin a slow decline after that. However, that seems not to be quite true. According to pro football focus, although most WRs hit their fantasy hot spot at about 29 years old, it seems like we do not see a true drop-off in fantasy production until after a WRs age 31 season. If Thielen can fall within these averages, I think we could see another WR1 season from him, and be hooked on a Thielen for at least one more season.

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