Vikings bringing in competition to challenge returners

Vikings wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson averaged 25.6 yards per kick return last season, which tied for sixth in the NFL.

Bruce Kluckhohn/Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — During the second round of organized team activities, the Minnesota Vikings sent rookie Stefon Diggs and newcomer DuJuan Harris back to return kickoffs during special teams’ drills.

Meanwhile, on the sideline was Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota’s talented but enigmatic receiver and returner who is facing a critical season in his development. No, the Vikings haven’t soured on Patterson and are trying to find another returner. In fact, Minnesota special teams coach Mike Priefer offered strong support of Patterson, who was named to the Pro Bowl following a spectacular rookie season as a returner.

"In my mind, Cordarrelle Patterson is the best kickoff returner in the league," Priefer said last week. "It would be crazy for me to try and put someone else in that spot. But we’re still bringing competition; we still want him to get better. There’s things that he can’t do this year that he did last year; put the ball on the ground and those things, but he’s still very talented and every time that he’s back there, you guys see what teams do — they get nervous and they don’t like kicking to him. We get great field position because of that."

But Priefer and the Vikings have always fostered competition in the summer and are seeing what the two newcomers can do, knowing what Patterson and punt returner Marcus Sherels are capable of.

It was just two seasons ago when Patterson burst on the scene and led the league with a 32.4-yard kickoff return average and scored a league-high two touchdowns on kickoff returns. Sherels was second in the NFL with a 15.2-yard average on punt returns and had one touchdown.

Both saw a drop in production last season, though. Sherels slipped to an 11.0-yard average for sixth in the league. Patterson, during a perplexing season, saw his average drop to 25.6 yards per return, a tie for sixth in the NFL. Neither player scored. Patterson’s long return was 51 yards.

Sixth in the league in average per return for Patterson and Sherels isn’t shabby, but Priefer is seeing what Diggs and Harris might offer.

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Harris averaged 20.7 yards per kickoff return last season for the Green Bay Packers. Diggs, a speedy receiver drafted in fifth round, had experience as a kickoff and punt returner at Maryland.

"DuJuan, I’m familiar with; we’ve played against him before," Priefer said. "He’s a very strong, quick returner. I think he is more of a kickoff returner than a punt returner. Stefon can do both. He had a great freshman year at Maryland doing both, tailed off a little bit the next two years, but I think he’s got a phenomenal skillset. He’ll give some great competition at those spots."

Diggs averaged 28.5 yards per kickoff return as a freshman, scoring two touchdowns. He had a 23.9-yard average last season on 20 kickoff returns. After averaging 10 yards per punt return as a freshman, he only had three returns his final two seasons with the Terrapins.

"I think right now, yes, he’s got the skillset to be a returner in this league, and I think he’s got to develop and do the little things that are necessary in terms of tracking the ball, catching the ball and getting the ball up field and doing the things that we’re asking him to do," Priefer said. "But we will see more of that as we get going in training camp."

Of course, Diggs is competing against Patterson, in whom the coaching staff still believes, and Sherels, who has outlasted plenty of competition the past few seasons. The diminutive returner and cornerback seemingly always faces a challenge to make the roster but comes through as a steady performer.

"I think everybody that has talked to me before about Marcus Sherels understands or knows how I feel about him," Priefer said. "I think he’s a very reliable returner; also is rated one of the better returners in this league in making people miss and getting the big yards when they’re there. . . . He’s a very reliable and talented returner that somebody is going to have to come in and beat him out.

"We’re going to have competition like we do every year. He knows that. But I’m excited about that because that’s only going to make him better and make our football team better."

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