The Vikings punted on keeping veteran Chris Kluwe, making rookie Jeff Locke eager to produce.
By BRIAN HALL FS North
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Jeff Locke had plenty of contact with the Minnesota Vikings and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer before being drafted by the team two weeks ago.
Locke had met with Minnesota at the Senior Bowl and the Scouting Combine. Priefer later conducted a private workout with Locke at UCLA, where Locke's 44.23-yard average is second all-time in school history. Priefer knew the talent Locke holds in his left leg. It's why the Vikings felt comfortable making him the first punter selected in the NFL draft, choosing to make the move in the fifth round to get Locke.
As soon as he was drafted, the fate of incumbent Chris Kluwe, who happens to be one spot below Locke on the UCLA punting record list, was all but decided. Even though Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman said Locke was coming in for competition, his eventual replacement of Kluwe was almost a foregone conclusion.
"One, the character; two, he's a left-footed punter, which helps; three, he's a great directional kicker; four, he's excellent getting the ball inside at the 20," Spielman said of what separated Locke from the other punters in the draft. "Very good holder, good athlete, so those were all the things once we got into our draft meetings and then, like last year we sent coach Priefer out and did numerous private workouts and came back. When he came back and we were in our special teams meetings, he gave his input into it. Once we gathered all that information, that's why we made the decision."
The Vikings didn't cut Kluwe right away. Really, all they needed was to see Locke punt one more time.
Just like a year earlier when Minnesota replaced veteran kicker Ryan Longwell with rookie Blair Walsh, Priefer wanted to see how the coveted draft pick handled his first exposure with an NFL team during the team's annual rookie minicamp. With cold weather forcing the team inside for rookie minicamp, Priefer took Locke to the Metrodome to practice.
"It went really well," Locke said last week after practicing with Priefer, before adding that the two went through, "kind of just the basics; directional both ways, inside the 20s, backed up. We kind of went through everything, did a couple punts."
And just like with Longwell and Walsh last year, the Vikings released Kluwe this week following the rookie minicamp. As it probably was the moment he was drafted, the punting job is Locke's should he not falter this summer. The team was seemingly just waiting to see how he handled an NFL environment.
"We just want to make sure that he handles some of the situations that we're going to put him in," coach Leslie Frazier said last week when Locke went to the Metrodome. "We just want to put him in different situations and see how he can respond…A similar process (to last year) although a little different position. But try to test him a little bit and see how he handles some different things."
The Vikings clearly saw enough of Locke to feel comfortable in their decision. Now it's up to Locke to prove Minnesota made the right move. The Vikings and Priefer probably feel emboldened by the success of Walsh last year. Priefer identified something in Walsh, who had struggled his senior season at Georgia. With NFL coaching, Walsh set several team records and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
Locke will try to match that success. While there were several rumors of the Vikings' growing uneasiness with Kluwe's outspoken nature and maybe making the move for off-field reasons, Kluwe even called his 2012 season "average." He had the third-highest gross punting average of his career with a 45.0-yard average, which only ranked 23rd in the NFL. Kluwe's career-high net average of 39.7 was 17th in the league.
Minnesota hopes for better directional kicking with Locke, who also comes cheaper than the veteran Kluwe. The fact Locke is left-footed is an added bonus.
"Left-footed punter has a different spin on the ball," Spielman said. "I know when we play teams that have left-footed punters, we always bring in a left-footed punter for a workout so our guys can get accustomed to that different spin. If he was a left-footed punter and wasn't very talented, then we wouldn't have drafted him. We're drafting him because of his talent."
Locke, who grew up playing soccer, wasn't surprised the Vikings drafted him. He said he received the most pre-draft attention from Minnesota, Buffalo, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore and the New York Jets.
But he's with the Vikings now — with a job solely his after the anticipated release of Kluwe —and he's ready to get to work with Priefer, who will try to mentor another young player into a big season.
"I'm just trying to do what I do," Locke said. "I'm not trying to do anything extra. I've just got to keep doing what I've been doing to get to this point, and keep refining my technique."
He added: "(Priefer's) great. We get to work every day. We don't waste any time. We come in and we work on everything, all the small points and the technique. Even (last week), we were going through holding, nitpicking on everything. I like him a lot."