Adam Thielen: Buyer Beware (Fantasy Football)

By Chris Molina

Adam Thielen is currently being drafted in the third round on Sleeper as the WR9 off the board. Let me repeat that. HE IS THE WR9 OFF THE BOARD. This is after finishing 2019 as the WR59. Yes, I know, he missed six games. Yes, I know that Stefon Diggs is now in Buffalo and that means 94 targets are up for grabs in this offense. And yes, I also know that Thielen is now the undisputed WR1 on the depth chart. Members of the fantasy community on Twitter have been shouting his name from the rooftops in every poll. They all assume he is going to be a top ten receiver. And he very well could crack the top ten. He was, after all, the number one receiver over the first eight weeks of 2018. I am not here to dispute his ceiling though. I am here to warn you about a very realistic floor that nobody is talking about. It is a manufacturer’s job to warn you about potentially dangerous defects or side effects for consumer products. It is my job to do the same before you buy Adam Thielen.

Kirk Cousins only had 444 pass attempts last year in 15 games. The Minnesota Vikings were 29th in the NFL in total pass attempts. There are no signs that things will be different either. 516 rush attempts got them ten wins and a Wild Card victory over the heavily favored New Orleans Saints. This is unless Dalvin Cook holds out and misses games and Alexander Mattison isn’t enough of a replacement that keeps the offense running smooth. That is a conversation for another day though. Let’s assume it is another run-heavy season. Last year, Diggs led the team with 94 targets. The Tight End position had 105 targets. Ameer Abdullah, C.J. Ham, Alexander Mattison, Mike Boone, and Dalvin Cook combined for 124 targets out of the backfield. Adam Thielen only had 48 targets (on pace for 80 in a healthy 15 game season as they rested a lot of starters in Week 17). People will say “but Diggs is gone” and “94 targets are up for grabs” when they peg him for 130 targets (30% target share). Sure, it’s possible. Let’s explore that though.

Thielen&Diggs

Did Stefon Diggs benefit from Adam Thielen? Or did Thielen benefit from Diggs? With Diggs now in Buffalo, we may find out pretty soon. (Photo from https://www.startribune.com/)

While the Diggs trade offers 94 vacated targets to this offense, the Vikings brought in Tajae Sharpe to assume some of those targets. Sharpe has averaged 55 targets per season over his four-year career with the Titans. (Keep in mind, he missed all of 2017 to injury.) The Vikings also spent their first-round draft pick on WR Justin Jefferson from LSU, who had 111 receptions last year for the eventual National Champions. It is fair to assume that he will get at least 50 or so targets himself. That means there are more average amount of targets coming in than targets leaving. This doesn’t even take into account Thielen missing six games and leaving two other games early. He is bound to have at least 40 more targets if he has a healthy season. But it is just as possible that Jefferson, Sharpe, Bisi Johnson, Chad Beebe and rookie K.J. Osborn combine for 150 targets as it is that Thielen gets hyper-targeted and four of those receivers get ignored. The reason that is important is if they get another 229 targets to the TE and RB positions and they pass for roughly 470 attempts again, that’s only 240 targets available to the receiver position. Punching in these numbers would mean only 90 or so targets available to Thielen. That’s not great Bob.

Another factor that people have not considered is how elite of a route runner Stefon Diggs is. In Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception, which reviews routes run from 200 receivers in the NFL over an 8-game sample size, Diggs had major success against man and zone coverages. His 76.5% success rate against man coverage was ninth in the NFL. His 84.3% success rate against zone coverage ranked fifth among wide receivers. He was also better against press coverage than 93.1% of the receivers charted. In the WR Profile for Stefon Diggs, Harmon called him the best route runner in the NFL. That means the “best route runner in the NFL” will not be lined up on the other side of Thielen anymore. He may be a great route runner, but he has a lower success rate in every aspect. Now he will draw the top corners in the league to shadow him all over the field, potentially forcing Cousins to look elsewhere.

ThielenRPDiggsRP

Now let’s take a moment to chat about Adam Thielen’s fantasy output the last two years. Like I said earlier, I know Thielen was the number one WR from weeks 1-8 in 2018. However, from weeks 9-17 he was only the WR25. To make matters even more interesting, Thielen was the WR37 in the last five weeks of the 2018 season. This coincided with the firing of the offensive coordinator, John Defilippo, because the team was passing too much. In 2019, Thielen was the WR12 before his injury in Week 7. However, he finished as the WR59 and WR44 in fantasy points per game. This kind of floor is not being discussed. This is concerning considering who he is going around in that third round.

Allen Robinson, Amari Cooper, DJ Moore, and Robert Woods are all going behind Thielen in ADP right now. Robinson was the WR7 last year and is being drafted as the WR10; Cooper was the WR10 last year and is being drafted as the WR12; Moore was the WR12 last year and is being drafted as the WR14; and Woods was the WR19 last year — the WR9 in 2018, for what it’s worth — and is being drafted as the WR18. Compare all of this with Thielen who was the WR44 in fantasy points per game last year, which bakes in his missed games last year. He was the WR37 in the back half of the 2018 season. Also, before his injury last year, he was the WR12. You mean to tell me that someone who wasn’t a top ten receiver for more than half a season the last two years, and is going as the WR9 this year, isn’t a risk? I don’t buy it.

In my personal projections, I have Thielen with 95 targets, which is one more than what Diggs had last year to pace the team. That’s over a 20% target share, as I have Cousins finishing with 471 pass attempts in the same projections. Throw in eight touchdowns for Thielen and he finished as the WR29 for me. Ouch. Compare that to a WR5 finish for Woods, a WR9 finish for Robinson, a WR11 finish for Cooper, and a WR14 finish for Moore, they all returned on investment. Thielen did not. I get it though. A target share just north of 20% is at the bottom of WR1 shares in the NFL. However, Cooper, Kenny Golladay, Golden Tate, DJ Chark, and a few other WR1s did not get higher than a 22% share of their team’s targets last year. This includes Stefon Diggs. That would mean around 10 more fantasy points to Thielen in my rankings. That would move him all the way up to WR24 in my rankings. Still a significant disappointment. Therefore, it is just as reasonable to see him in the low-end WR2/high-end WR3 range as it is to see him as a top ten receiver, yet nobody is talking about it.

Buyer beware. Consider yourself warned.