CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)Adam Thielen is proving he has plenty of gas left in the tank.
Through six games for the Carolina Panthers, the 33-year-old wide receiver has 49 catches for 509 yards and four touchdowns. If he maintains that pace, he’d finish with a career-best 139 receptions.
That type of success hasn’t surprised coach Frank Reich, who pushed for the Panthers to sign Thielen after he was cut by the Minnesota Vikings this past offseason after 10 productive seasons and two Pro Bowls.
“I’ve tried to say that from the start, this guy is special,” Reich said. “He’s a special route runner and he has special football smarts and savvy. He’s a unique and elite competitor. He’s an elite leader.”
What bothers Thielen, though, is that his production hasn’t translated into wins.
The Panthers (0-6) head into their bye week as the NFL’s only winless team.
“We need some kind of reset, need something to change what’s going on,” Thielen said after Carolina’s 42-21 loss to the Miami Dolphins last week. “Figure out each of us, look ourselves in the mirror and find a way to get better. But also just mentally and physically just get a little break and move on to the next part of the season.”
Thielen’s name has been the subject of trade rumors given that Carolina’s chances of snapping a five-season playoff drought are miniscule. No NFL team has rebounded from an 0-6 start to make the postseason in the Super Bowl era.
But the Panthers appear content to keep the highly productive Thielen around to aid in the development of rookie quarterback Bryce Young. The No. 1 pick has struggled, although he hasn’t gotten great protection and some of the team’s other wide receivers haven’t gotten consistent separation from defenders.
Thielen has been a reliable target for Young through it all.
“You can tell Bryce has a ton of confidence in him,” Reich said.
There were questions about Thielen’s ability to get open last season, even though he caught 70 passes for 716 yards and six touchdowns for the Vikings. And some critics questioned whether the Panthers, who’ve been desperate for a No. 1 receiver since Steve Smith Sr.’s departure in 2014, overpaid for Thielen by giving him a three-year contract worth $25 million, including $11 million guaranteed.
Those questions carried over to the season opener against the Atlanta Falcons, when Thielen caught two passes for 12 yards and was a non-factor while playing through an ankle injury.
But since then, Thielen has been on a tear.
Over the past five games, he has averaged more than nine receptions and nearly 100 yards per game. He’s had 11 catches in three of his past four games for an offense that ranks near the bottom of the league.
Thielen has been Mr. Reliable.
He’s been targeted 59 times and his 49 catches put him one behind Puka Nacua and Ja’Marr Chase for the league lead entering this weekend’s games.
Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins remembers talking with then-Minnesota assistant coach Kevin Stefanski about Thielen’s scouting report when he came out of Division II Minnesota State Mankato as an undrafted rookie.
“Undrafted, try hard,” Cousins said. “You know, we always roll our eyes at those kind of reports on guys. So I probably wouldn’t have given him the credit that he deserved, because I would have been like everybody else who judged a book by its cover, looking at his bio. And Kevin Stefanski is the one who said, ‘This guy’s 4.4, this guy’s the No. 1, this guy can do it.’
“So, from day one, I went along with Kevin’s breakdown saying, ‘All right, I’ve gotta treat this guy like he was a first-round pick and block out the fact that he played D-II ball and he’s kind of had to fight his way up here,’” Cousins said.
Thielen clearly benefited from playing alongside Stefon Diggs and later Justin Jefferson in Minnesota, and was viewed as the No. 2 receiver.
But Cousins said he felt like the Vikings actually had two No. 1 receivers.
“Obviously Stefon Diggs has become a clear No. 1 in this league, and a Pro Bowler, and that was Adam – you could see that. They could go toe-to-toe with each other,” Cousins said. “We had two of those guys, and it obviously made it a lot of fun as a quarterback. And Adam’s been doing it for so long.”
AP sports writer Dave Campbell contributed to this report.
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