This is the 10th in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Minnesota Vikings’ July 25 start of camp.
TODAY’S POSITION: SPECIALISTS
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 8
Projected starters: Kicker Blair Walsh (third year), punter Jeff Locke (second year), long snapper Cullen Loeffler (11th year), kickoff returner Cordarrelle Patterson (second year), punt returner Marcus Sherels (fourth year)
The breakdown: Minnesota has had solid special teams play for years and it’s maintained its steady play through near-complete turnover the past few years. Only Loeffler, the long snapper, has been in the league longer than three seasons.
Walsh, Locke and Patterson are all draft picks currently playing on their rookie contracts. Walsh and Patterson already have Pro Bowl invitations on their resume. Sherels is an NFL survivor, annually counted out because of his size (listed at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds). Yet, he always seems to show up and make an impact for the Vikings.
Walsh’s follow-up to his big rookie season wasn’t quite as smooth. He connected on 92.1 percent of his field-goal attempts as a rookie and was 10 of 10 from 50 yards or longer. Walsh was in the middle of the pack in the NFL last season, converting 86.7 percent. He was 2 of 5 from 50 yards or longer.
Maybe a regression should have been expected. After all, Walsh set records as a rookie. He also could have been going through a transition as he adjusted to a new holder in Locke. Of his four missed field-goal attempts last season, three were from 50 yards or longer. A year after having touchbacks on 61.6 percent of his kickoffs, Walsh slipped to 51.2 percent last season. A leg injury might have been partially to blame.
Locke struggled a bit in his rookie season after being drafted in the fifth round but improved as the season wore on. Locke finished tied for 23rd in the league with a 44.2-yard gross punting average and was tied for 18th with a net punting average of 39.2 yards.
Patterson was a star immediately as a returner. In his second career regular-season game, Patterson had a 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, one of two touchdown returns on the season. Teams learned quickly and stopped kicking to Patterson in many occasions, still providing Minnesota with good field position.
Patterson led the league in averaging 32.4 yards per kickoff return and was the only player to return two for touchdowns. He set an NFL record for a kickoff return with a 109-yard return for a touchdown in Week 8.
Sherels doesn’t get the same attention, but he had a Pro Bowl-worthy season too. Given the punt-return job because of his steady hands and reliability, he showed some game-breaking ability as well. Sherels had an 86-yard return for a touchdown and finished second in the NFL with a 15.2-yard average on 22 punt returns.
Loeffler is the holdover from the previous regime, a steady long snapper whose value is seen when he isn’t in the lineup, like when he missed time with injury in 2011.
Best position battle: The Vikings aren’t bringing competition for Walsh, Locke or Loeffler to training camp. While there might not be the same competition as last season, it’s conceivable that Sherels is again fighting for his job. He can’t be surprised at this point. Seemingly every season there’s a challenger trying to knock Sherels out of the spot.
Receiver Jarius Wright was expected to provide competition, but he’s never become comfortable returning punts. Maybe rookie running back Jerick McKinnon can show something as a returner. He’s likely to be worked at both spots and at least be a backup.
Sherels is the backup kickoff returner when the team tries to spell Patterson — something which could occur more this season — along with McKinnon. Patterson hasn’t been used as punt returner. A handful of players likely on the roster bubble could get a chance to unseat Sherels, the most interesting of which might be receiver Kain Colter, a college quarterback.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Vikings; 2. Packers; 3. Lions; 4. Bears. Locke should be improved in his second year, which gives Minnesota a real edge over the rest of the division when it comes to specialists. Walsh is potentially the division’s best kicker and Patterson the best kickoff returner. Loeffler is a steady snapper and Sherels, at least statistically, holds his own against the rest of the division.
Green Bay returns its group from last season, coming off a steady season. Kicker Mason Crosby had an important bounce-back campaign for the Packers, connecting on 89.2 percent of his field-goal attempts. Punter Tim Masthay wasn’t much better than Locke last year, ranking 21st in gross punting average (44.6 yards per punt) and net punting average (39.0).
Randall Cobb displayed some big-play ability as a returner his first two years in the NFL, but Green Bay decided against using Cobb in those roles last year. Instead, rookie Micah Hyde ably filled in. Hyde was eighth in the league in punt returns, averaging 12.3 yards per return, and 17th in kickoff returns, averaging 24.1 yards per return.
Chicago is undergoing some of the same transitions the Vikings have done in recent seasons. Longtime, standout long snapper Patrick Mannelly retired. The Bears also released returner Devin Hester. Eric Weems, who has averaged 10.4 yards on punt returns and 24.3 yards on kickoff returns in his career, will step into the big shoes of Hester, perhaps the most dangerous returner in NFL history.
The always reliable Robbie Gould returns at kicker. Adam Podlesh was the worst statistical punter in the league last year, so Chicago drafted Miami’s Pat O’Donnell in the sixth round.
Detroit drafted its own punter last year and Sam Martin was one of the best statistical punters in the league. Martin was sixth in the league in gross punting average (47.2 ) and 10th in net punting average (40.4).
Returner Jeremy Ross, signed after being waived by the Packers, gave the Lions a big threat. Ross would have finished just ahead of Sherels in punt-return average last season if he had enough returns to qualify. Ross had 17 returns for a 15.5-yard average. Ross also averaged 24.5 yards per kickoff return last season. Denver’s Trindon Holiday and Ross were the only two returners to have touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns last season.
The unknown for the Lions is at kicker. Detroit didn’t bring back veteran David Akers, who struggled last season. Instead, the Lions will give the job to a rookie. Giorgio Tavecchio, who lost a competition with Green Bay’s Crosby last year, is on the roster, and Detroit also drafted Boston College’s Nate Freese in the seventh round.