EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Bobby Felder became the instant sensation during the Minnesota Vikings preseason game last week at Buffalo with, splashing with four big special teams plays in the second half of a loss.
Felder had two punt returns and downed two punts inside the 5-yard line to gain attention. Felder had caught the attention of Minnesota’s coaches long before one preseason game that is anything but meaningless to Felder and others on the roster bubble.
Coaches had seen ability in Felder last summer, or more specifically, instincts.
“I think Bobby’s an instinctive football player, but also, Bobby’s still learning,” were the first words out defensive coordinator Alan Williams’s mouth Thursday when asked about Felder.
A day earlier, coach Leslie Frazier’s described Felder like this: “He’s a pretty instinctive guy. He can kind of feel things and it doesn’t have to be just like you drew it up on the board because rarely does it happen that way when people start moving around on the football field.”
Felder’s instincts, and his play, are getting noticed a year after he spent the entire 2012 season on the Vikings’ practice squad. Felder, 22, has a chance to make the move from the practice squad to the active roster this season with versatility as a cornerback — particularly as a slot corner — and on special teams, where he flashed last week.
“I feel like the coaches got a feel to see how instinctive I was with me being on scout-team defenses and plays like that,” Felder said. “We go against the first team on offense, they’re not going to design a play for us to get out there and make a play on the offense. You have to go out there and react to what they are doing. Being that we were game planning for other teams and me just getting out there and making plays, they took notice of that and they saw the type of player that I can possibly be.”
He showed his progress and potential last week.
Felder downed two of punter Jeff Locke’s end-over-end punts within the 5-yard line last week by getting in good position. He also had three punts for 62 yards. He took his first attempt — his first punt return in a game since college — for 21 yards. He later added a 37-yard return, fielding the ball at the 6-yard line and giving Minnesota good field position on its final drive of the game.
“He plays bigger than he is,” special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. “He’s about 200 pounds, but he plays like a bigger guy, in terms of being physical in the return game, especially. The plays he made the other day were exciting for him and for us. He did a great job downing the punts down inside the five, and just releasing and getting downfield and understanding where he was. That’s not an easy thing to do; that’s why we work on it a lot. And, of course, his returns were great.
“Coach Frazier has been on me about giving him an opportunity to be our punt returner, and he responded to the challenge.”
Felder, 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, is getting his opportunity to be the punt returner. Priefer called Marcus Sherels, Minnesota’s main punt returner the past two seasons, and Felder as the top two players fighting to win the punt return job.
Felder, who was among the Vikings’ final cuts last season before signing to the practice squad a day later, was an undrafted free agent out of Nicholls State. But he had the on-field credentials. He had 12 interceptions, which ranked fourth in school history and had five interceptions as a senior. On special teams, he blocked three kicks and had 12 punt returns.
“You need some guys who can have instincts to make plays and recognize things as they occur, and he’s one of those guys,” Frazier said. “He’s a very instinctive player who has very good awareness when it comes to football. That was one of the things that struck us when he was on the scout team. He did a good job for us then, so we were anxious to see how he would play once we got him into some game situations.”
Frazier said the third preseason game will be important for Felder, who the team wants to take a close look at on defense and special teams. Versatility will an important factor on making the final roster.
Felder did get beat for a touchdown in the first preseason game. He appeared to have good coverage on Houston rookie receiver DeAndre Hopkins, but Hopkins came away with a 34-yard touchdown as both players jumped for the ball.
“This is still Bobby’s first year, so to speak, being able to get live reps,” Williams said. “So, I’m not going to put too much on his plate, but I have high expectations for Bobby. He’s a good football player and he’s a physical football player also. He has extremely good ball skills. So, I’m just waiting to see how he’s going to do in the live situations. I’m a wait-and-see guy. So I’m just going to wait and see how he plays, but in the back of my mind I do have high expectations for Bobby.”
Williams likely built those expectations while watching Felder on the practice squad last year.
“Being out there every day being on practice squad, you get to go against the starters every day,” Felder said. “Those are the guys out there on Sunday. The same guys you see are the same guys I was practicing with and just being able to practice against those guys every day, that just made me better. Come my second time around, I’m a lot more familiar with the terminology, the things that the coaches talking about and I just feel a lot more comfortable than I did last year.”