Article reprinted courtesy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and reporter Chris Tomasson
ST. PAUL, Minn.--- Adam Thielen didn't work his way into the Vikings' starting lineup until his fourth year with the team. Brandon Zylstra is focused on following Thielen's lead, but he'd like to move up the ranks more quickly.
Zylstra is drawing comparisons to Thielen for obvious reasons. Like Thielen, the wide receiver is from small-town Minnesota and went undrafted after playing at a small school outstate.
Zylstra signed a reserve/futures deal with the Vikings on Jan. 3. He will begin spring drills with them April 16.
"Coming in, my goals are going to be to not be on the practice squad," Zylstra said. 'I feel like I can come in and just compete for a starting spot. … Why not? I'm not going to be coming in and just expecting to be a backup. If I end up in a backup role, that's cool. But I'm just going to keep working until I get that starting spot."
Thielen and Stefon Diggs are sure-fire starters in the fall. But Zylstra considers the third receiver role as good as a starter.
Kendall Wright, signed last week as a free agent, has the leg up to be the No. 3 guy, and third-year receiver Laquon Treadwell will compete for that job. Zylstra would seem to be a long shot — just like he has been all his life.
After playing at New London-Spicer High School, the Spicer native didn't get any Division I scholarship offers. He ended up at Division II Augustana in Sioux Falls, S.D., before transferring to Division III Concordia-Moorhead.
Undrafted in 2016, Zylstra signed with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League. He caught 100 passes for a league-best 1,687 yards in 2017.
"It seemed to catch a lot of people by surprise," Zysltra said. "But at the beginning of the year, I was writing down my goals and stuff, and I actually wrote down that I wanted 100 catches and 1,500 yards. When I got there, I was pretty thrilled."
So were plenty of NFL teams. About 20 showed interest in Zylstra, and he said he chose the Vikings over Arizona, Indianapolis and the New York Jets.
Zylstra 25, signed a standard rookie, nonguaranteed three-year deal starting at a $480,000 salary for 2018. He doesn't deny that growing up a Vikings fan played a role in his team choice.
"It's super exciting," Zylstra said. "It's definitely like a dream come true. (Playing for the Vikings is) something I've wished for since I was in kindergarten."
As a bonus, Zylstra will be a teammate of Thielen, a native of Detroit Lakes who played at Division II Minnesota State Mankato. Undrafted in 2013, Thielen spent one season on the Vikings' practice squad and two seasons as a reserve before moving into the lineup in 2016. He has 2,243 yards receiving over the past two years, and he made his first Pro Bowl in 2017.
Zylstra and Thielen have the same agent, Twin Cities-based Blake Baratz. Asked if he believes he could become another Thielen, the confident Zylstra said, "Why not?"
"Very much so, I think he can," said Terry Horan, Zylstra's coach at Concordia-Moorhead. "I said this a few years back: 'This guy is a sleeper. If he lands in somebody's camp, they're going to get a great one.' He could be the next Thielen."
Zylstra and Thielen have been working out together during the offseason at ETS Elite Next Level in Oakdale. Zylstra first got to know Thielen in 2016 when he got out of Concordia-Moorhead.
"My quarterback in college (Michael Herzog) was a good family friend of his and he gave me his number," Zylstra said. "So I just called him for advice. He pretty much said, 'Go to any kind of workout that you can.' "
Before the 2016 draft, Zylstra participated in North Dakota State's pro day and at an NFL regional combine in Arizona. While he wasn't drafted, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Zylstra impressed scouts with his athleticism and catching ability. They liked his 34-inch vertical leap but not his 4.6-second time in the 40-yard dash.
While training in Arizona in the spring of 2016, Zylstra had workouts with four CFL teams before signing with Edmonton. After he signed, the Vikings wanted to bring him in for a tryout but his Eskimos contract wouldn't allow that.
"He was bummed that he couldn't do the Vikings workout then," Horan said. "But I told him to just go up to Edmonton and make a name for yourself."
That's what Zylstra did. In just six games as a rookie in 2016, Zylstra had 34 catches for 508 yards in the passing-oriented CFL. Then he really broke loose last season.
"It's very exciting for us as a community," said Zylstra's high school coach, Dan Essler. "Brandon is a great guy, and he's worked hard to get where he's at. I think he's a late bloomer and that he's just going to continue to get better."
Good enough that he one day could be compared to Thielen?
"I think he definitely has a shot," Essler said. "His catch radius is phenomenal. He can get up and get the ball much like Adam Thielen, and it sticks in his hands. He outjumped corners in Canada and we'll see how that translates to the NFL."