Adam Thielen wasn’t even in high school yet when Larry Fitzgerald entered the NFL in 2004 with Arizona with the acclaim of the third overall pick in the draft.
Nine years later, Thielen needed a rookie tryout camp with Minnesota just to earn a roster spot. It took a season on the practice squad and two more years spent mostly on special teams to set him up to break out as one of the league’s best wide receivers – and underdog stories.
With Fitzgerald’s impeccable career with the Cardinals (1-4) winding down, Thielen’s has just begun to take off with the Vikings (2-2-1). Though they play the same position and won’t actually face each other on the field, the matchup Sunday has created an opportunity for these Minnesota-raised pass catchers and summer golfing pals to reflect on their paths to success. And their admiration for each other.
”Being born and raised in Minnesota like him, it just makes me so damn proud to see him doing the things he’s doing, but not just on the field. The way he carries himself, the constant professional, the teammate he is,” said Fitzgerald, who will decide this winter whether to come back for a 16th season. ”Being around him at different events, the guy is class personified, and it just makes me so, so happy to see somebody like that be rewarded.”
Fitzgerald, as a teenage ball boy for the Vikings in the late 1990s, befriended Cris Carter and Randy Moss and was able to glean up-close tips he used to develop into one of the most well-rounded and well-conditioned players at this glamorous position. He has missed only six games in 15 years.
Thielen grew up watching Carter, Moss and eventually Fitzgerald on TV.
”I just know how hard he works and how successful he’s been,” Thielen said, ”and I’ve really tried to emulate what I’ve done from him.”
They first met during one of Fitzgerald’s summer visits to his hometown, where he has often led workouts for quarterbacks and receivers in the area right before training camps begin. Like Fitzgerald, Thielen has flourished as a smart and sharp route runner who’s capable of winning a matchup at any spot in the formation. His durability compares, too, with perfect attendance on the field to date in his sixth NFL season.
”Early in your career you don’t understand how hard guys work, especially the guys who play a long time and are successful,” Thielen said. ”So that was something for me, like, `Wow, this guy has been successful for a long time. He’s still out here grinding in the summer when he probably doesn’t need to.””
Here are some other key angles to follow on Sunday:
CHALLENGE OF CHANDLER
The Vikings are well aware of the danger posed by Cardinals defensive end Chandler Jones, who had six tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss, two quarterback hits, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup last week against the 49ers to win the NFC defensive player of the week award.
”He can take over a game at any time. I just hope he can continue to progress in that direction,” coach Steve Wilks said.
Jones, who led the NFL last season with a franchise-record 17 sacks and has a league-leading 32 sacks and 48 tackles for loss since arriving in Arizona in 2016, has 13 tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks, one forced fumble and a touchdown return of a blocked field goal in matchups with Minnesota in 2015 and 2016.
Despite the presence of one of the NFL’s most dynamic running backs, David Johnson, the Cardinals rank last in the NFL in rushing with an average of 64.6 yards per game. Johnson has 242 rushing yards, plus 120 receiving yards. Averaging just 3.3 yards per rush, Johnson has had little space in which to use his skills behind a struggling offensive line. He led the NFL in yards from scrimmage and touchdowns in 2016.
”We definitely can play better, without a doubt,” Wilks said. ”I think if you asked those guys that question, they’d tell you the same thing: too inconsistent.”
RUNNING BEHIND, PART TWO
The Vikings are second to last in the league in rushing with an average of 65.8 yards per game, after ranking seventh last season. Running back Dalvin Cook has been held out of two of the last three games because of a hamstring injury, but he’s on track to return against the Cardinals. The blocking has been spotty, but the Vikings have also faced double-digit-point deficits in the second half of three of their five games.
”There’s no one in this building who wants to run the ball more than I do,” offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said. ”Because it takes a lot of pressure off me.”
TURNING THE CORNER
After sitting out against the Eagles because of a concussion, cornerback Trae Waynes has returned to action this week for the Vikings. Due to injuries to his knee, his ankle and then his head, Waynes has also missed the second half of three games this season.
”It’s part of the game. Injuries happen,” Waynes said. ”You’ve just got to overcome them.”
Rookie Mike Hughes has played the left cornerback spot when Waynes was out, but the first-round draft pick will be able to move back inside to the slot when the Vikings are in their nickel defense.
”He’s got great quickness and talent, and he’s a good kid,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. ”Works real hard, trying to get better, asks a lot of questions. So I’ve been pleased with him.”
The Cardinals have not won in Minnesota in nine visits since 1977, 11 seasons before they moved from St. Louis to the Phoenix area.
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