MANKATO, Minn. — Minnesota Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer was asked his philosophy on how he’d like to use Percy Harvin on kickoff returns this season with an interested observer sitting in the second row of the team’s interview tent at training camp.
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, who surely has his own beliefs on how and when to use the multi-talented, explosive receiver, was next up at the podium. The two have keen interest on the availability of one of their biggest playmakers.
Harvin has been Minnesota’s best weapon in the passing game since splashing on to the scene as the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2009. He’s also the team’s biggest threat on kickoff returns, averaging 26.6 yards per return in his three-year career. Harvin has said multiple times he’s willing to do anything the coaches ask.
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Priefer has his thoughts on how he envisions Harvin being used this year.
“As far as I’m concerned, Percy’s our No. 1 kickoff returner,” Priefer said. “We have several other returners on the roster, obviously, and we’re going to work as many guys as we can in training camp and in preseason games. But come Week 1, if he’s ready to roll, I’m ready to have him back there.”
The Vikings have involved several players through the offseason program and at the beginning of training camp as they look for the best punt returner and kickoff returner, behind Harvin that is. Minnesota used draft picks on receiver Jarius Wright and cornerback Josh Robinson, two speedy options, in part because of their return ability. Second-year player Marcus Sherels, free-agent signee Bryan Walters, receiver Kerry Taylor and rookie free agent Nicholas Taylor also have taken reps returning kicks.
But when Minnesota practiced returns during Saturday morning’s walk-through, there was Harvin back taking the first reps on kickoffs.
Harvin led the league last season with a career-high 32.5 yard average on kickoff returns. He had a 103-yard return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff of the season and a 104-yarder later in the year on which he nearly scored. Lorenzo Booker, who signed with the Chicago Bears as a free agent, had a team-high 19 returns but was largely unimpressive with a 23.7 average and was replaced during the season. Sherels equaled Harvin’s 16 returns and averaged 27.8 yards per return.
But Harvin’s usage was way down from his rookie season when he had 42 returns for a 27.5-yard average and two touchdowns, earning a Pro Bowl nod as a kick returner. He returned 40 kicks in 2010. Priefer, Harvin and coach Leslie Frazier have already discussed his possible usage this season.
“We got a great game plan set up right now,” Harvin said. “I definitely will be doing them. I don’t know how often I will be, but coach said I’m definitely in the mix. So I will start the season off.”
While Priefer wanted to use Harvin as much as he could last year, the team chose to protect Harvin, and his number of returns declined to keep him healthy and ready for the upcoming offensive series. He responded with his best offensive season as a result, with a team-best 87 catches, 967 yards receiving and six touchdowns.
And the Vikings are back to their usual predicament: how to use Harvin best while not overworking him and protecting him from injury.
“We have an idea how we want to use him,” Frazier said. “It will be one of those things where we’ll always be conscious of how much we’re going to be using him on offense and what we need from him on kickoff return. He’s such a threat as a returner, but at the same time, he’s one of our most valuable players on offense. We have to balance that, and he’s one of those guys that goes so hard that you don’t want to jeopardize what he can give you in totality. We do have a plan, but we’ll see how things go from game-to-game.”
Priefer seems pleased with the plan and will be ready to use Harvin when possible.
“I think we’re going to have a good plan with Percy this year,” Priefer said. “He is our No. 1 kickoff returner. When we have the opportunity to use him, we’re going to use him. If he’s not back there for whatever reason, we’re going to train two or three other guys to make sure that we have a capable backup and we’ll go from there.”
Priefer said during minicamp he’s had cases where’s struggled to find one dependable option to return kicks. He’s been pleased with the depth and variety of options this season and believes the next few weeks will provide some separation between the possible fill-ins.
“In the spring they did so many reps, so we got an idea of who can catch a little bit better, who’s a little more explosive, who can do some things,” Priefer said. “Before the pads come on, you don’t really know what you have. Are the guys going to be a little bit more courageous or less courageous when people are running down on them, especially on punt? I’m really excited to put the pads on next week and see where we’re at and, obviously, less than two weeks see where we are in the first preseason game.”
Injury updates: Cornerback Josh Robinson, the third-round draft pick in April, pulled up while covering a deep pass during Friday’s afternoon practice and sat out Saturday’s workouts with a hamstring injury. Frazier said it wasn’t a tear and he’s considered day-to-day. Receiver Stephen Burton (jammed toe) is getting better and was called day-to-day by Frazier. Cornerback Nicholas Taylor (shoulder) also sat out practice and Frazier said he will have tests conducted to find out the severity of the injury.
Tight end Mickey Shuler was placed on the non-football injury list on Friday with a heel injury, but he was back practicing fully on Saturday.