FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — If there’s a team in the NFL that can truly appreciate Adam Thielen, it’s the New York Jets. Their locker room is filled with players who came up the way he did — the hard way.
The Jets have 16 former undrafted free agents, including six starters: Robby Anderson, Jermaine Kearse, Isaiah Crowell and Eric Tomlinson on offense, Steve McLendon and Brandon Copeland on defense. Each player is a success story, but what Thielen is doing for the Minnesota Vikings is truly remarkable.
Thielen, undrafted out of Minnesota State in 2013, leads the league in catches (58) and receiving yards (712). No player in NFL history caught more passes in the first six games of a season than Thielen, who has yet to be held under 100 yards. If he reaches the mark on Sunday — a pretty safe bet against the Jets’ injury-plagued secondary — he’ll tie Charley Hennigan (1961) for the longest 100-yard streak to open a season.
This is someone who wasn’t even invited to the NFL scouting combine, someone who began on the lowest wrung of the ladder — a non-roster invitee to a rookie minicamp. He earned a free-agent contract from the Vikings, but was cut as a rookie and had to work his way up from the practice squad.
“From one undrafted guy to another, you understand the journey that he’s had to take, not only to get noticed in the first place, but to then get a shot and take over and become the starter he is,” Copeland said. “As an undrafted free agent, you start behind the 8-ball, so to speak. You have to work two, three, four times harder any everybody to stick around and excel. There’s a lot of respect on my end.
“I’m not saying that drafted guys don’t work hard. I just know they’re always looking to replace undrafted guys.”
Every player has a story, a reason he wasn’t drafted. Copeland came from the Ivy League (Penn), not a football factory. Anderson had a checkered career at Temple and didn’t have much experience. Crowell changed schools because of off-the-field issues, hurting his stock. Kearse ran a disappointing 40 time at the combine.
They’ve all overcome the odds. Crowell is the seventh-leading rusher in the NFL, two weeks removed from a franchise-record 219 yards in one game. Anderson and Kearse are coming off career years and have pivotal roles in the offense, especially with Quincy Enunwa (ankle) sidelined for a few weeks. McLendon is the elder statesman on defense, an emotional leader.
“I had to make my own spoon,” said McLendon, who played at Troy. “I tell people I had to get it out of the mud. I had to use mud as glue. Every stick that I found, I had to put it together with mud. … I always thought, ‘All I need is one opportunity, one chance.’ Pittsburgh took a chance on me. I was thankful. I was more than thankful, because I felt like I had an opportunity to live out my dream.
“I’m pretty sure that’s how [Thielen] is right now. He’s thankful for somebody giving him a chance to live out his dream.”
At 6-foot-2 with great hands and deceptive speed, Thielen is wrecking defenses on a weekly basis. He and quarterback Kirk Cousins already have developed a strong rapport, and they can’t be stopped. Coach Todd Bowles laughed when asked how opponents are trying to cover Thielen.
“He’s outstanding,” Bowles said. “He’s tough. You can see that he’s tough. He’s extremely smart. He’s seen every coverage that you can throw at him. Outstanding hands, and you can tell that he’s a competitor of the highest level. Whether you double him, triple him, single him or play zone, he finds a way to get open and get it done.
“It’s rare to find a No. 1 receiver — and they have two of them, actually — that can get open when you know you’re doubling him. [He] just doesn’t quit and gets open. He has that special gift.”
The Jets are catching him at a bad time, as three of their top five defensive backs are out of the lineup: cornerbacks Trumaine Johnson and Buster Skrine and safety Marcus Maye. Thielen does most of his damage in the slot. With Skrine out, the Jets’ slot corner is rookie Parry Nickerson, who struggled last week against the Indianapolis Colts. To say it’s a worrisome matchup would be an understatement.
Thielen shreds good and healthy secondaries, so this might be a cover-your-eyes game for Jets fans. He could make this another chapter in his storybook career.