Smith gaining momentum, standing out with Thielen in crowded WRs group
Vikings wide receiver Rodney Smith finished with four catches for 55 yards against the Cardinals, all coming on the final drive, including a two-yard touchdown with 18 seconds left on a jump ball which allowed him to use his height and beat the defender.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — For two weeks in Mankato, first-year receiver Adam Thielen was one of the stars of the Minnesota Vikings training camp.
Thielen, an undrafted player who spent last year on Minnesota’s practice squad, was standing out in the contest for one or two spots behind the Vikings’ quartet of Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson and Jarius Wright.
Another former practice-squad player has been providing the highlights recently. Rodney Smith, who eventually saw action in four games last year after starting on the practice squad, has added to the competition at receiver.
"Both of those guys have stepped up," offensive coordinator Norv Turner said this week. "Early I think Adam was having a more consistent camp, but as we’ve gone through these last couple of weeks Rodney is really making a move. The thing I always say is, if we have a bunch of guys playing good, if you make enough plays, there’s enough room for you on a team.
"Those are decisions that obviously coach (Mike) Zimmer and (general manager) Rick Spielman are ultimately going to have to make, but if a guy goes out and makes a bunch of plays they usually find a way to be on the team."
Smith and Thielen might be giving Zimmer and Spielman second thoughts on how many receivers Minnesota keeps on the 53-man, regular-season roster. With Simpson facing a possible suspension, Smith and Thielen could both find their way onto the season’s opening roster.
Thielen contributes on special teams too, but Smith has the recent momentum on his side. Smith had four catches for 55 yards and a touchdown in the second preseason game and has continued making big catches in practice this week, using his size (6-foot-5, 225 pounds) to his advantage.
"The game’s starting to slow down for me a little bit, and it’s starting to show with me making a couple of plays," Smith said. "I just got to try to stay consistent."
It wasn’t always easy for Smith, despite the physical tools. He went undrafted out of Florida State and had to start on the practice squad after being plagued by drops. Smith eventually made the active roster and played in four games, but he went without a catch.
Smith is catching the ball more consistently in practices and using his height to his advantage. During Thursday’s practice, Smith was playing with the first-team offense as a third receiver, joining Jennings and Simpson on certain plays.
"A lot better just because the game is slowing down for me," Smith said of catching the ball more consistently. "I know where I’ve got to be at, I’m not thinking too much and everything. It’s starting to help me out."
Not overthinking has helped. Coaches have stressed to Smith to play fast. Jennings said Smith’s biggest improvement in recent weeks has been coming off the line.
"The line of scrimmage, for me, has been his downfall simply because he just overthinks sometimes," Jennings, the nine-year veteran, said. "If he comes off the ball using his size and his speed, because he has it all, trust me, he has it all. . . . He definitely has the physical tangibles that it takes to be a successful receiver in this league. Just coming off the ball and attacking the ball when the ball is in the air, and having confidence in what his assignments are and going out and executing."
Thielen basked in the comfortable surroundings of Minnesota State University, where the Vikings hold training camp and Thielen played in college. He routinely flashed with diving catches in training-camp practices and then helped his cause in the first preseason game with three punt returns for 52 yards, a tackle on punt coverage and a big third-down catch.
"Adam has had an outstanding camp," Jennings said. "He’s one of those guys that you can plug anywhere. He’s a constant. He’s very coachable. He’s going to give you what you ask of him, and it’s just a matter of continuing to make those plays when his number’s called."
It’s Smith who shined in the second preseason game. Coaches had talked about the second-year receiver’s improvement in recent practices. Then Smith combined with rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on Minnesota’s last-minute, game-winning drive.
Smith finished with four catches for 55 yards, all coming on the final drive, including a two-yard touchdown with 18 seconds left on a jump ball which allowed the 6-foot-5 Smith to use his height and beat the defender.
"Rodney’s a great worker, a hard worker, and he’s a great athlete," Bridgewater said. "For one, he’s a huge target, especially in the red zone. He’s a guy, as you can see last week, you throw the ball up to him, he’s going to make the big play."