MINNEAPOLIS — It appears for the first time in his life, Adam Thielen will play his home football games for a team outside of Minnesota.
The Vikings released Thielen on Friday, ending a 10-year run that figures to be recounted for years as one of the unlikeliest success stories in team history. The Detroit Lakes native, who went to Minnesota State Mankato on a $500 scholarship and signed with the Vikings after a 2013 rookie camp tryout, leaves with more catches (534) and receiving touchdowns (55) than every player in team history not named Cris Carter or Randy Moss.
Releasing Thielen saves the Vikings $6.41 million in salary cap space, though they will absorb $13.55 million in dead money. The 32-year-old receiver had discussed a restructured contract that would have kept him in Minnesota on a reduced salary, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, but seemed inclined to pursue other teams that might offer a larger role in the offense than he would have with the Vikings.
“To go from a kid growing up in Detroit lakes to playing for the Minnesota Vikings has been a journey beyond what I could have dreamed of,” Thielen wrote on Instagram. “I want to thank everyone within the Vikings organization — coaches, teammates, the Wilf family and fans — for all the love and support I have received over the years. I poured everything I had into these last 10+ years in representing and playing for this team and state. My family and I will always cherish the memories we created on and off the field. Minnesota is — and always will be — home to us.”
Thielen caught 70 passes for 716 yards and six touchdowns in 2022, his seventh season as a starter in Minnesota after one year on the practice squad and two where he was primarily a special teams contributor. He was targeted 107 times, as part of a team that became the ninth in NFL history to have four receivers with at least 60 catches, but saw his opportunities dwindle particularly in the final weeks of the regular season as tight end T.J. Hockenson grew into the Vikings’ No. 2 target behind Justin Jefferson.
“When you have the receiver that leads the league in yards and receptions and have three other guys with 60-plus, you feel really strong about that group,” coach Kevin O’Connell said at the NFL combine last week. “Adam is one of those leaders that I speak of. His teammates voted him as a captain, [for] what he means not only to our organization but the Twin Cities.
“I think there’s a conversation to be had to really see what that looks like: playing time and roles and responsibilities so that all of our players feel like not only it’s a fair compensation for them, but we’ve got the kind of players where they care a lot about their role and their responsibilities and how they help us win.”
The two sides were ultimately unable to bridge the gap on a reworked deal, however, and Thielen became the second Vikings mainstay to be released this week, after linebacker Eric Kendricks. The Vikings, who still have almost $9 million in cap space to clear before the start of free agency on Wednesday, could make another batch of moves in the next several days. They waived cornerback Cameron Dantzler later Friday and could restructure contracts for veterans like Jordan Hicks and Harrison Smith. They will also have to determine the future of edge rusher Za’Darius Smith, who has reportedly asked for his release from the team; the Vikings, a source said on Thursday, currently have no plans to cut Smith, though they would recoup more than $12 million in cap space by doing so.
As Thielen pursues free agency for the first time, he concludes a decade with the Vikings that went far beyond what anyone could have imagined.
After nudging undrafted free agent Nicholas Edwards from the Vikings’ roster in 2013, Thielen earned a spot on the team’s practice squad with a strong training camp on the same fields where he practiced in college, as familiar faces cheered his name and Mankato-based reporters asked former coach Leslie Frazier about his progress each day.
“If I was with a different team, no one would have had any idea who I was when I was a rookie,” he said in 2017, as the Vikings concluded their final training camp in Mankato. “Here, I had people who watched me in college. I had reporters that wanted the feel-good story. When you’re coming into training camp, there’s not a whole lot that is familiar. When you can grab something from it, it keeps you calm and helps you just play football.”
His first NFL touchdown came in 2014 after Thielen blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown, leaping into the stands at Huntington Bank Stadium in the first of the Vikings’ two seasons there. He became a starter in 2016, the team’s first year at U.S. Bank Stadium; he was a second-team All-Pro in 2017 and reached his second Pro Bowl in 2018, with a 113-catch season that ranks as the fourth-best in Vikings history.
The receiver who’d considered selling dental supplies at Patterson Dental after college made $63.8 million in 10 years with the Vikings. His 534 receptions are the ninth-most by an undrafted free agent in NFL history; his 55 touchdowns are third, behind only Antonio Gates and Rod Smith.
Off the field, Thielen and his wife, Caitlin, started their foundation in 2018, raising more than $2.5 million in five years to serve young people around the state. The Thielen Foundation fixed the lighting system at Brooklyn Center’s football stadium in 2021, allowing the school to play its first night home games in three years, and launched partnerships with the Northside Impact Fund and Urban Ventures to support athletic programs in Minneapolis neighborhoods affected by civil unrest after George Floyd’s murder in 2020.
The Vikings named Thielen their 2022 Community Man of the Year, nominating him for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
Thielen is immediately free to sign with another team, and could look to play with a veteran quarterback as he tries to pursue a championship toward the end of his career. His friendship with Aaron Rodgers, formed through their pairings in a number of celebrity golf tournaments, could make him a candidate to play for whichever team employs the quarterback next season.
When he retires from the NFL, though, Thielen seems a virtual certainty to be enshrined in the Vikings’ Ring of Honor.
“Adam’s tremendous impact goes well beyond the Vikings organization,” Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf said in a statement. “His rise from a tryout player to one of the best players in the history of our franchise has encouraged so many young athletes and is a testament to hard work and perseverance. While Adam had a competitive fire on the field, he showed grace, compassion and humility within his community. The commitment he and his wife, Caitlin, have shown to Minnesota through the Thielen Foundation has and will continue to provide real change. Adam’s energetic, contagious personality will be missed inside the facility, but we are grateful for the foundation he built. He was a Minnesota Viking long before we signed him and he will be always considered a part of this team.”