It’s the natural progression of any great NFL player. You go to a Division III school to play football. You go undrafted by all professional teams. You tie the all-time record for most consecutive 100-plus yards receiving games and lead the league in both receiving yards and receptions. Oh, and by the way, you do it for the team that you grew up cheering for.
Alright, so this isn’t the natural order of things. Each year, a few elite players from the top Division 1 colleges in the country are selected by one of the 32 professional football teams in the draft. Not even all 224 of those guys selected make it to the final roster of the team who chose them, and even fewer actually get to start in regular season games.
So when you consider it, very few of the best-of-the-best hardly have a chance at becoming a star player and someone from a small Mid-western school who was undrafted and unknown should have no chance.
At least, theoretically.
And if one did manage to do that, it would have to be a miracle, right? Right?
Incidentally, many have taken notice of Adam Thielen. He grew up in Minnesota watching Randy Moss on TV, he was a DIII athlete, went undrafted by any professional team, barely made the Minnesota Viking practice squad and is now one of the best wide-receivers in the National Football League. While this progression has been seen as a miraculous, dream-come-true story for Thielen, when you stop and take a closer look at his entire career instead of just looking at the last few amazing seasons, this outcome isn’t so strange.
Thielen isn’t the fastest receiver. He doesn’t have a great vertical or have a large wingspan or make flashy plays like other top wide receivers. All the extreme, natural talent that make guys like Odell Beckham Jr, Antonio Brown and Julio Jones isn’t in Thielen’s DNA.
So how does he do it? The secret formula is one that most self-made Americans can relate too: humility, consistency and attention to fundamentals.
When it comes to technique, Thielen’s route running is superb and can throw off even the most skilled cornerback. His connection with his quarterback has constantly been outstanding throughout his career, especially since he has successfully adjusted to four different quarterbacks in the last three seasons with very little offseason preparation and practice time to do so.
Stefon Diggs, Minnesota’s current WR2 by a slim margin, shows some of the same dedication to the fundamentals as Thielen. From the beginning of his NFL career, Diggs clearly had some of the sharpest route running the league had ever seen, and this led to many explosive plays, including the legendary “Minneapolis Miracle.” And oh yeah, Diggs is a fifth-round draft pick. No big deal.
The similarities and a shared attitude of humility between Thielen and Diggs is probably why the two wide receivers are such good friends and are considered the best wide receiver duo in the league. While other wide receiver duos often end up fighting for the spotlight, the camaraderie between Diggs and Thielen allows them to be very successful together.
Often when Thielen has a great game, it is because the opposing defense is focusing on Diggs and leaving Thielen wide open, or vice versa. Teamwork really does make the dream work.
The reason that Thielen is usually placed ahead of Diggs on most depth charts is the second factor of the formula of success: consistency. Thielen (knock on wood) has yet to miss a single game due to injury, while Diggs has missed large portions of various seasons due to ankle and leg problems. In a sport as dangerous and injury-ridden as professional football, durability like Thielen’s is priceless.
Both wide receivers were ranked very low when they came into the league and were overlooked by almost everyone. But these two have taught the NFL a lesson that might still be as overlooked as the underdogs were themselves: flashy plays and raw talent can only take you so far.
Humility, consistency and attention to fundmentals will, in the end, always prevail.