Vikings taking a chance with rookie Walsh
This is the 10th in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Minnesota Vikings' July 27 start of camp.
July 10: Quarterbacks
July 11: Running backs and fullbacks
July 12: Wide receivers
July 13: Tight ends
July 16: Offensive linemen
July 17: Defensive linemen
July 18: Linebackers
July 19: Safeties
July 20: Cornerbacks
July 23: Specialists
July 24: Coaches
July 25: 5 things to accomplish in camp
July 26: Fans’ guide to camp
TODAY'S POSITION: SPECIALISTS
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6
Projected starters: K Blair Walsh (rookie), P Chris Kluwe (eighth year), LS Cullen Loeffler (ninth year), KR Percy Harvin (fourth year), PR Marcus Sherels (second year)
The breakdown: The coaches preach the importance of special teams, but there are questions regarding several spots for Minnesota. Only punter Chris Kluwe and long snapper Cullen Loeffler are known quantities among the specialists, each among the best at their position in the league and both are signed through at least next season.
Much of the talk last season revolved around the trio of Loeffler, Kluwe and kicker Ryan Longwell that had been able to stick together for much longer than is typical in the NFL. Well, even that triumvirate is now broken up after the Vikings made the curious decision to release Ryan Longwell not long after drafting Blair Walsh in the sixth round. Minnesota could have let it be an open competition between the veteran Longwell and the rookie, but decided to give Walsh the chance to work with the rest of his special teams' group without the threat of a competition. Longwell remains unsigned. Longwell did have a down season, by his standards, last year, but he's been one of the most consistent kickers in the NFL for a long time. The Vikings are taking a chance on Walsh.
Walsh has a big leg and had a few big seasons while at Georgia, but he also was inconsistent and hadn't performed as well recently as he did earlier in his career. Minnesota's coaches think they discovered a flaw in his motion while at Georgia and can correct him. Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said Walsh was rushing his motion, just getting to the ball too fast. But Minnesota wanted to gamble on his strong leg, which will aid in kickoffs as well. But Walsh was still inconsistent at times during organized team activities. So, a strong early showing in training camp will probably save the Vikings staff some restless nights. Minnesota is still planning to go without any competition for Walsh, hoping he can mesh well with Loeffler and Kluwe, who does the holding on field goals.
Harvin is a dynamic kick returner, maybe as good a returner as there is in the league. Alas, the Vikings don't want to subject him to the wear-and-tear and beating he would take returning every kick. So, the coaching staff uses his judiciously, looking for a big spark at the right time. Any number of players could fill in behind Harvin, including Sherels, receiver Bryan Walters, third-round pick Josh Robinson, fourth-round pick Jarius Wright, free-agent cornerback Nicholas Taylor and maybe even speedy backup running back Jordan Todman. Veteran cornerback Chris Carr also has a lot of experience as both a kick and punt returner.
Best position battle: Conceivably each of the return spots are open for competition during training camp. Minnesota needs a quality kick returner for the time sit chooses to rest Harvin. But the punt return job is completely open. Sherels handled the job last year, averaging 8.4 yards per return. He showed flashes of shiftiness and broke a couple of returns, but also had some really poor choices on when to field punts that put the offense in bad spots way too often. Sherels also handled some kickoff returns as well. Sherels' route to making the team might be by showing he's a good enough returner to keep around, despite not falling behind the improved depth at cornerback. Sherels' main competitive could come Robinson and Wright, who's positions on the team are likely set, Walters and Taylor. Sherels has the experience, but has to show more than he did last year. Minnesota might be best hoping Wright, who has a similar skill set as Harvin without maybe the explosiveness, can handle the backup kickoff job and be the main punt returner.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Bears; 2. Packers; 3. Vikings; 4. Lions. In a division with two of the best return men in the division, quality kickers and punters, Minnesota's group has a long way to go before being considered with the best in the NFC North. Besides being a pain in the side to the Vikings, Chicago returner Devin Hester might be one of the best return men in league history. Not to mention, Robbie Gould handles kicking in the tough environment of Soldier Field. Punter Adam Podlesh and the coverage units are solid as well. Green Bay returner Randall Cobb had a breakout rookie season and could get even better. Kicker Mason Crosby has been inconsistent, but he has a strong leg and can make all the kicks. Tim Masthay is a quality punter. We might finally be seeing the end of Jason Hanson's amazing run in Detroit. He still converts at a high rate, but his leg isn't as strong as it used to be. Hanson has been a mainstay in the division for a long time. Returner Stefan Logan has speed and is a good returner, but not as dynamic as some of the others in the division and the Lions have a competition at punter.
Priefer says: "I don't mind competition but I think with what we're trying to accomplish with Blair and the chemistry between Cullen, Chris, and Blair, to me, is extremely important. If we had another kicker in camp, I think you're going to share that a little bit. I don't think he'd be worried about competition. I wouldn't be worried about competition because he's been very successful kickoff-wise. He's got a big-time leg. I wanted to make sure that field goal-wise, that we have the chemistry between those guys rolling even before we got to camp and I think we're doing a good job in that respect. They work very, very hard and they've worked really well together this spring."
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