Photo credit: Carly Gouge

During the 2012 NFL season, the Minnesota Vikings offense experienced both great success in their running game and crushing failure in their receiving game. The team actually ended up finishing second in the NFL in rushing yards with 2,634 (with Adrian Peterson finishing with a career-high 2,097 rushing yards) and first in yards per attempt (YPA) with 5.4. Unfortunately, unlike their running back corps, the Vikings’ receiving corps for the 2012 season was extremely disappointing – as their three leaders in receiving yards were Percy Harvin with 677, Kyle Rudolph with 493 and Michael Jenkins with 449. Additionally, this group ended up finishing dead last in both receiving yards (2,935) and yards per reception (9.8). 

To shore up these issues, the front office used both free agency and the NFL draft to strengthen their receiving game. On March 15, 2013 – only a few days after the free agency signing period officially opened up – the Vikings plucked Packers WR Greg Jennings from their division rivals by offering him a $47.5 million contract over five years. Following this coveted free-agent signing, Vikings officials turned their attention to the 2013 NFL Draft – which had a number of talented receiver prospects, including DeAndre Hopkins, Keenan Allen, and Robert Woods. During the first night of the draft, the Vikings ended up trading four picks (52nd, 83rd, 102nd and 229th overall) to the New England Patriots in order to move back into the first round. With that 29th overall pick they received, the Vikings selected Tennessee’s do-it-all WR Cordarrelle Patterson. Following the draft, the Minnesota Vikings made a number of undrafted free agent signings at the wide receiver position to continue improving their offensive firepower. Some of the initial signings included Nicholas Edwards (Eastern Washington), Erik Highsmith (North Carolina) and Rodney Smith (Florida State). They also extended a rookie minicamp tryout invitation to Duron Carter (Florida Atlantic) – the son of Vikings legend Cris Carter. 

However, none of these potential “fixes” proved to be a long-term solution for the Vikings. Jennings was released only two years after signing his five-year deal. Patterson was never able to even hit the 500-yard receiving mark in a single season and subsequently signed a contract with the Oakland Raiders. By the time the 2013 regular season rolled around, Edwards, Highsmith, Smith, and Carter all failed to make the final roster – with only Smith being signed to the practice squad for that season. Instead, it was another 2013 rookie tryout invitee that would end up paying off the most for the Vikings organization; a player that had to wait over a week to finally get signed by a team while many lesser-talented undrafted free agents had already received numerous offers and signed their contracts. That player was Adam Thielen, a wide receiver out of nearby Minnesota State University—Mankato (MSU).

Photo credit: Minnesota State University—Mankato

Since first making the Vikings 53-man roster in 2014, Thielen has steadily gained more and more trust from the coaching staff and has quickly become a fan favorite amongst his fellow Minnesotans. With a significant uptick in targets, Thielen has also emerged as an elite receiver in the league. In fact, over the past two seasons, he has finished top ten in both receptions and receiving yards – an impressive feat for a player who, just five years ago, was seen by many in the NFL as a long shot to even make a final roster. 

While many will choose to push the narrative that Thielen was just a typical Division II receiver who worked incredibly hard in order to get to his current standing as a top player at his position, his production at MSU seemed to indicate that he was destined to at become an above-average NFL receiver (provided he would be given a meaningful opportunity to earn snaps and targets). In his redshirt sophomore season, Thielen broke out when he caught 66.1% of his targets, averaged 16.9 yards per reception and 11.1 yards per target, and, most importantly, accounted for nearly 32% of MSU’s receiving production while only being given 24% of the team’s targets. Thielen’s efficiency and impressive display of dominance at the age of 20 proved to all that he possessed the talent necessary to thrive as a number one receiver at the collegiate level. And while his production and efficiency both dipped during his junior season, Thielen used his senior season to further prove that – in addition to possessing starting-level talent at the college level – he also had the requisite talent to become a starter in the NFL. During his final season in 2012, Thielen amazingly accounted for nearly half (46%) of his team’s receiving production while averaging 15.9 yards per reception (10.3 yards per target) and catching 64.9% of his targets. Over his entire four-year career at MSU, Thielen ended up accounting for approximately 30% of his team’s receiving production. That combination of sustained production and a relatively young breakout age seemed to indicate that Thielen was an underrated prospect who had more NFL potential than many of the receivers drafted in that draft class, including Cordarrelle Patterson, Terrance Williams Brice Butler, Kevin Dorsey, Corey Fuller, Cobi Hamilton, Ace Sanders, Tavarres King, and Justin Brown. In fact, if you compare Thielen’s collegiate dominance to the 26 receivers drafted in 2013, his career production was fourth best – only behind Keenan Allen (39.2%), Marquess Wilson (34.0%) and DeAndre Hopkins (29.9%). 

After looking at these numbers, it becomes clear that all 32 NFL teams (yes, even the Vikings) made a huge mistake by not using any of their 254 collective draft picks to select Adam Thielen. As luck would have it, in the upcoming 2019 NFL Draft, these teams will be given an opportunity to make up for their past mistake. This opportunity presents itself in the form of a Division II wide receiver whose profile looks similar to Thielen’s in some ways and even better than Thielen’s in other ways. That receiver is none other than Trey Brock of Hillsdale College. To understand what makes Trey such a captivating prospect, we must first go back to the very beginning of his storied collegiate career. Whereas it took Thielen until his redshirt sophomore season (when he was 20 years old) to break out, Brock already had a modest breakout season as an 18-year-old true freshman. That season, Brock contributed nearly a quarter of Hillsdale’s receiving production and was the receiving corps’ leader in yards (483), yards per reception (18.6) and touchdowns (3). While this kind of production was certainly impressive coming from such a young player, it was Brock’s truly elite play during his sophomore season that first revealed his NFL potential. It was a season in which he, as a 19-year-old, did what most receivers only end up doing as 21 or 22-year-old seniors. Brock amazingly accounted for just over half (51%) of his team’s receiving production – all while only garnering a 35% share of the targets. Additionally, he led the Hillsdale receiving corps in every major category: receptions (77), yards (1,322), yards per reception (17.2) and touchdowns (12). To fully appreciate just how dominant Brock was, you must take into account that Austin Sandusky – the team’s second-leading receiver in 2016 – only had 39 receptions, 487 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns. Like Thielen, Brock experienced a slight dip in production during his junior season; however, his version of a ‘down year’ was still substantially better than Thielen’s – as he accounted for 40% of his team’s receiving offense (compared to Thielen’s 28%) and averaged 15.9 yards per reception (compared to Thielen’s 11.5).

Photo credit: Hillsdale College

Just as Thielen had done in 2012, Brock saved his best football for his senior season. In 2018, the 6’3”, 218-pound Brock bested his sophomore season by accounting for a whopping 53% of Hillsdale’s total receiving production (while only being given 35% of the targets). This number becomes even more impressive when you begin comparing it to the numbers produced by some of the highly-rated receiver prospects in the 2019 draft. In fact, Brock’s production in 2018 bested that of many of his fellow receivers, including: Kelvin Harmon (NC State), D.K Metcalf (Ole Miss), Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (Oklahoma), Riley Ridley (Georgia), A.J. Brown (Ole Miss), Deebo Samuel (South Carolina), Parris Campbell (Ohio State), Anthony Ratliff-Williams (North Carolina) and Anthony Johnson (Buffalo). And just so you don’t think Brock’s superior play was simply a one-season anomaly, let me also point out that, over the entirety of his career, he has been more dominant than any of these players have been over the duration of their respective careers. Since first taking the field as a Charger in 2015, Brock has accounted for nearly 44% of Hillsdale’s total receiving production. The only other player previously mentioned to even get above 40% is Anthony Johnson. However, Johnson’s accomplishment is still less impressive than Brock’s considering: (1) his career at Buffalo only lasted two seasons and (2) it took him until his redshirt junior season (as a 22-year-old) to finally break out at the Division I level. 

I would be remiss not to also mention that Trey’s tape is just as impressive as his numbers are. It becomes clear after just minutes of watching him run routes that, like Adam Thielen, he is a complete technician out on the field – a style of play that is becoming much less common as colleges continue to hold a preference for athleticism over technique when recruiting high school prospects. NFL scouts and front office personnel certainly seem to be maintaining that very same preference when evaluating prospects in college – ultimately preferring to use their high draft picks to select elite athletes like Darrius Heyward-Bey and Tavon Austin over technique-oriented players like Adam Thielen and Keenan Allen. As it currently stands, Trey Brock’s profile has very few flaws. The young breakout age. The phenomenal senior season. The per-touch efficiency. The sustained dominance over an entire four-year career. These, all combined together, not only mark Brock as an underrated and underappreciated NFL prospect, but also point to him actually being a top-five wide receiver prospect in the entire 2019 draft class. 

With a recent Senior Bowl snub and little-to-no chance of a Combine invitation coming his way anytime soon, it will certainly be interesting to see if Brock will be able to finally get NFL teams to give him the respect and attention he deserves. His first offseason opportunity to display his on-field talent in front of NFL scouts will be at the upcoming College Gridiron Showcase. Additionally, in the next few months, he will have an opportunity to impress scouts with his athletic abilities when Hillsdale holds its annual pro day. Unless something crazy happens over the course of the next few months, Trey Brock should remain an elite prospect with good odds to someday become, at the very least, an effective backup receiver and, quite plausibly, a solid starting receiver in the NFL. 

Of course, all of this is predicated on NFL teams actually realizing his potential and giving him a chance to grow as a player and prove he belongs. Let’s just hope that, in his pursuit of that coveted opportunity, they don’t make him jump through as many hoops as they made Adam Thielen jump through in 2013.