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Vikings Training Camp: A budding NFL career potentially starting for Thielen

Adam Thielen heads up field during the Minnesota Vikings rookie camp this past spring. BRIAN BASHAM/TRIBUNE

After a franchise record-setting improvement from a 3-13 2011 season to a playoff-bound 10-6 2012 year, the bar is set much higher for this year’s Minnesota Vikings.

The first steps of climbing back up the heap of potential NFL playoff teams starts Thursday, as members of the Vikings start reporting to training camp in Mankato.

As with all 32 teams in the NFL, there are a bevy of angles and issues which need to be addressed in the coming weeks during the four-game preseason.

For the Vikings, there are plenty, but one stands on top of them all – the hopeful improvement of third-year quarterback Christian Ponder.

It’s been a topic rehashed over and over, so much, it’s like mush which has gone through a blender.

With training camp starting, Ponder will still be the main topic of discussion and how this season is basically a make-or-break one for him, with the added weapons he has at his disposable in the form of free agent acquisition wide receiver Greg Jennings and the drafting of highly-skilled, but raw, receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.

There will be no excuses for Ponder, unlike last year, when his horses were basically the look of a miniature pony show with one of the worst receiving corps in the NFL, which in turn led to a 31st-ranked aerial attack.

Just to get a quick summarization on the Ponder issue, since it will be in print, audio and television until even the most novice fan knows about it: His weapons are vastly improved with a legit WR corps, led of course by Green Bay steal Jennings.

Patterson looks to be eventually vying for No. 2 duty with second-year acquisition Jerome Simpson, who appears to be healthy for the first time in two years.

The dark horse playmaker will be slot receiver Jarius Wright, who came on strong at the end of the season after replacing injured Percy Harvin.

Wright showed ability to make defenders miss in the open field, stretching short dump off passes into good gains. He also hauled in a couple of long balls – which were rare – from Ponder.

The development of third-year tight end Kyle Rudolph could be crucial, since he is on the verge of being a breakout candidate.

The health of John Carlson could also be a positive after a bust of a year last season.

The offensive line looks forward to another year of continuity, led by second-year left tackle Matt Kalil, who earned a Pro Bowl berth as a rookie.

Oh, and let’s not forget All-World running back and 2012 NFL MVP Adrian Peterson, who still will be the ruler of the Norseland.

All that leads up to Ponder having no excuses for at least pushing the Viking passing offense up to the middle of the pack, while Peterson does his thing.

Now, off to what probably is the most popular topic of training camp – at least in the Detroit Lakes area.

DLHS graduate Adam Thielen played his way onto the Vikings’ roster with a strong performance during a rookie minicamp earlier this spring.

His stock rose tremendously during OTA’s, as he started getting some attention from the metro media for making play after play.

Thielen has the confidence he belongs in the NFL and thus far, he has proven that he’s exactly right.

The big factor for Thielen to making the active roster for the season opener will be his performance in training camp and staying healthy through it.

Entering Thursday, there are 12 wide receivers on the roster. Four WR spots are basically sealed by Jennings, Patterson, Simpson and Wright.

Greg Childs, a 2012 fourth-round draft choice, is a potential fifth, if he shows he has recovered from a double patellar-tendon injury he suffered last year. That’s a big “if,” though.

Other vets contending for spots include QB-converted-into-WR Joe Webb and Stephen Burton, who is a third-year player.

Thielen is one of three undrafted rookie receivers, but looks to be ahead of the other two heading into camp.

There is a good chance the Vikings keep six receivers on the roster, depending on how the other positions shake out.

If six are kept, that increases Thielen’s chances significantly, since he will be vying for one of the final two spots with the other eight receivers.

As for Webb, he is about as raw as it comes at the position, since he’s been a quarterback the last three seasons.

His best shot is if he excels as a punt or kick returner with his stellar skill and talent. But he has to prove he can run routes and catch balls.

The Vikings should know what they have in Burton and it can’t be much, since he hasn’t seen the active roster too much in his three years.

That leaves Thielen going up against former teammate LaMark Brown, who was on the practice squad last year, along with Erik Highsmith, Rodney Smith and Chris Summers.

Smith is intriguing with his 6-5 frame, but he really didn’t prove much at Florida State.

What Thielen has going for him, besides his strong showings at OTA’s, is his crisp route running, nice NFL frame (6-2, 195), speed (4.45) and reliable hands.

An intangible also held by the former Laker is his love for football and undeniable work ethic.

Thielen is the exact kind of prototype NFL player GM Rick Spielman and head coach Leslie Frazier have been collecting over the last couple of seasons.

Look at the drafting of Kalil and safety Harrison Smith, along with the signing of Jennings.

All are high character players, something Thielen fits right in with.

Thielen isn’t just a token home-cooking signing. He earned it 100-percent with his performance at the rookie camp, in which the Vikings only signed two out of 30-plus players trying out as undrafted rookies.

Thielen’s experience at punt returning also could play a factor, or even time on the special teams.

One thing is for sure, he is in the mix and has a realistic shot at becoming Detroit Lakes’ very first NFL player when the regular season rolls around.

Of course, there are other options for Thielen, which include the practice squad or even being picked up by another team, since now he is on tape and all the other 31 teams are well aware of him.

I will be traveling to Mankato for the opening of the Vikings training camp to see firsthand Thielen’s first jump into his hopeful aspiring NFL career.

Thielen’s story, among the other facets of an up-and-coming Vikings team will be in focus Friday and Saturday, as the NFL season is going to have a home flavor for the first time.

Brian Wierima
Detroit Lakes Newspapers Sports Editor for the last 15 years. St. Cloud State University graduate, who hails from Deer Creek, MN.