Adam Thielen Is a Fantasy Football Fade in 2021
Despite a less than top-tier workload in 2020, Adam Thielen was still a productive performer in fantasy terms last year, finishing among the top-12 fantasy performers on six occasions.
But there are factors in play that make a repeat performance in 2021 unlikely, casting a shadow over his fantasy appeal in the coming year.
Making the Most of His Opportunities
It wouldn't be 100% accurate to describe Thielen as a target hog in 2020.
He drew 108 targets for the Minnesota Vikings (7.2 per game), which was 27th among all wide receivers. Also, 22 wide receivers caught more than Thielen's 74 receptions, while 23 players had more receiving yards. Thielen posted 925.
Despite these numbers, Thielen was still able to post 16.8 PPR points per game last season, which was good enough for WR11 on a per-game basis.
How did he manage this? His nose for the end zone.
Thielen scored a total of 14 touchdowns in 2020, the third-most among all wide receivers.
Indeed, Thielen has been quite the regular visitor to the end zone since Kirk Cousins arrived in Minnesota. Thielen has 29 receiving scores over the last three seasons, the fourth-most at the wide receiver position. Thielen sits 18th with 217 receptions in this time and 20th in receiving yards with 2,716.
While we obviously like players who score touchdowns on our fantasy rosters, there are a few indicators that Thielen may not enjoy similar success in the coming year.
Touchdown Regression Is Coming
Thielen is one of only nine wide receivers since 2000 to have scored 14 or more touchdowns on 80 or fewer receptions. Of the previous eight for whom we have next season's data, none of them scored more touchdowns the following year. Only one of them managed to hit double-digit touchdowns the year after, and that was Hall of Famer Randy Moss.
There is also the small matter of where Thielen scored his touchdowns. All but one of his 14 scores came from inside the red zone. Thielen converted 13 of his 20 targets inside the scoring area into a score, a rate of 65%. This rate was the highest for any wide receiver with at least 20 red-zone targets since 2010.
This does not appear to be sustainable, however.
Since 2010, 14 wide receivers have scored at least 10 red-zone touchdowns in a single season. We have next year's data for 12 of those players. Thielen and Davante Adams both managed 10 or more scores inside the 20-yard line last season. All 12 others saw their touchdown tally drop the next year.
Still Establishing the Run
So we cannot bank on Thielen propping up his fantasy stock with a regular dose of touchdowns. Instead, he would need to see an uptick in targets on which to deliver more receptions and yards. But this is not likely to happen, either, based on the offense he plays on.
The Vikings have a new offensive coordinator in 2021 after Gary Kubiak stepped down. However, as the new OC also bears the surname Kubiak, I think it is safe to assume that we will see a somewhat similar offense in the coming season.
We know what that offense wants to do, as well. The Vikings are fully paid up members of team #EstablishTheRun. They had the sixth-lowest passing percentage in the NFL last season, passing on 54% of their plays. And in neutral game situations, they leaned even more heavily on their ground game. With the game within seven points, their pass rate fell to 49%.
The Vikings have a fairly moderate schedule in terms of the strength of opposition. Sharp Football Stats has them with the 18th-easiest schedule in terms of opposition win totals in the coming year. This should give them ample opportunity to run the offense the way they want to run it, and that does not mean filling the air with footballs.
Thielen will have to compete for targets with second-year receiver Justin Jefferson and tight end duo Irv Smith Jr. and Tyler Conklin. Thielen has established chemistry with Cousins at quarterback, but the quarterback's linkup with Jefferson wasn't too shabby last season. Cousins averaged 10.88 Adjusted Yards per Attempt when targeting Jefferson last season. He may find it beneficial to look to the youngster early and often when forced to pass the ball.
Adam Thielen's 2021 Fantasy Football Projection
But we can't really expect Thielen to find the end zone as often as he did in 2020. We don't expect him to be playing on a pass-heavy offense, either. So he is not a player I would be falling over myself to draft.
If you can land him as your WR3, then he may just about exceed your expectations. But betting on him as an upside WR2? That's just not for me.