Youth, potential mark Vikings' special teams
This is the 10th in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Minnesota Vikings' July 26 start of camp.
TODAY'S POSITION: SPECIALISTS
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7
Projected starters: Kicker Blair Walsh (second year), punter Jeff Locke (first year), long snapper Cullen Loeffler (10th year), kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson (first year), punt returner Marcus Sherels (third year)
The breakdown: Minnesota continued its special teams overhaul this offseason and could enter with as many as three new players in the five key positions, with rookies possibly featuring prominently in the roles. But the Vikings also might be confident with the makeover after the success it had with one last season. Minnesota surprised many when it drafted Walsh last year to replace veteran Ryan Longwell and no one, except maybe special team coordinator Mike Priefer, foresaw the impact Walsh made in his first year. Walsh not only was the standout of a group of rookie kickers, but set several team records in his rookie season. Walsh was a first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection in his first year demonstrating a strong, accurate leg after a few tweaks with Priefer in the offseason. Walsh set an NFL record with 10 field goals of 50 yards or longer, making all 10 of his attempts. He set a team-record with a 56-yarder and tied an NFL record with three 50-plus field goals in one game. His 92.1 field-goal percentage was third in the league for kickers with at least 20 attempts and he was fourth with 141 points, establishing a new team record for rookies. But he was also one of the league's best on kickoffs, with 61.6 percent of his kickoffs (third in the league) ending in touchbacks. He set a team record with 53 total touchbacks.
Walsh's big rookie season might have emboldened Priefer and the Vikings to make another switch by drafting UCLA rookie Locke to replace longtime punter Chris Kluwe. Kluwe is statistically one of the best punters in team history. Even while posting some of the best numbers of his career last season, he was behind the league averages in a big year for punters. Kluwe, who was released shortly after Locke was drafted, had the best net punting average (39.7 yards per punt) and the third-best gross average (45.0) of his career last season. But he ranked 17th in the league in net punting and 22nd in gross punting averages, while his number of punts downed within the 20-yard line decreased. There was also Kluwe's well-known public persona that might have worn down the team, though it denies it was a reason for Kluwe's release. Enter Locke, the first punter drafted in April in the fifth round. Locke averaged 43.3 yards a punt last season (gross average) and had 34 of his 77 punts downed within the 20-yard line. He was a Ray Guy award semifinalist in his first season at UCLA and was an All-American honorable mention last year. While he won't kickoff with the Vikings, he was also a coveted kickoff specialist at UCLA. Loeffler is the bridge from the old regime (Longwell, Kluwe) to the new regime (Walsh, Locke) having been the team's long snapper since 2004. He is considered one of the better long snappers in the league and a strong fundamental snapper, and is five games shy of setting the team record for most games by a long snapper, trailing Mike Morris 144-139.
Best position battle: Minnesota is entering training camp, again, without any competition for its three main specialists spots, but is entering competition for the two returner spots. For both the kickoff return and punt return jobs, there is an open competition without, possibly, any leaders heading into training camp. Marcus Sherels still holds a slight edge, mostly because of his experience and his ball security. During minicamp last month, Priefer said Sherels would be the top returner, then, if a decision had to be made, but it's clear the team wouldn't mind seeing some of the talented youngsters winning spots. Patterson might have the most potential of anyone at either spot. He showed a unique ability running with the ball in his hands in his one year at Tennessee and the Vikings made the aggressive move to jump back into the first round in April to draft Patterson and his playmaking abilities. The team sees him as a future No. 1 wide receiver, but his biggest impact as a rookie might come as a returner and Minnesota likely will give him every opportunity to earn at least one of the return jobs, probably at kick returner. But Patterson isn't without competition, which will come from Sherels, Jarius Wright, A.J. Jefferson, Josh Robinson (who some believed would develop into a kick returner when he was drafted last year), Joe Webb and undrafted free agent Jerodis Williams, who was a big returner in college.
Sherels has been steady but unspectacular during his run as the team's main punt returner and occasional kick returner. He doesn't have the game-breaking ability of some of the other, speedier returners and has made some curious decisions, but Priefer likes that he doesn't create turnovers and is secure with the ball. Returning is likely his lone shot at a roster spot, but the Vikings likely hope someone else demonstrates good ball security and explosiveness, and earns the job over Sherels. Patterson could be in the competition for the punt return job as well, though he has less experience on punt returns than kickoff returns. Wright was given the chance to win the job last year as a rookie, but struggled to learn the position and hold on to the ball. Some of the same players involved in the competition at kick return will be in line to compete at punt return. Here's to guessing that Minnesota will go with the potential of Patterson at kick return -- replacing Percy Harvin, whose 35.9-yard average would have led the NFL last year if he had enough returns to qualify -- and stick with Sherels' dependability at punt return.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Bears; 2. Vikings; 3. Packers; 4. Lions.
Chicago gets the benefit of the doubt for now over Minnesota, based on the known aspects of its veteran crew. Kicker Robbie Gould doesn't get much acclaim but is a solid kicker and has handled the windy environments in Chicago for years. He led the league in net kickoff average and was 21 of 25 on field-goal attempts. Devin Hester is still a talented returner and game-breaker, if not the explosive talent he once was. Long snapper Patrick Mannelly has been around a long time and is respected as well. Punter Adam Podlesh struggled in his second season with the Bears, ranking 30th in the league in gross average and tied for 18th in net average. Remember, Kluwe was replaced despite better numbers. The Vikings might have the most potential of any group in the division, but Locke and the returners are still unknowns in the NFL.
Green Bay returner Randall Cobb is another dangerous returner in the division, but the Packers' kicking is in question. Mason Crosby is being challenged by Giorgio Tavecchio for the kicking spot after Crosby connected on only 63.6 percent of his field-goal chances last season, the second-worst mark in the NFL for anyone with double-digit chances. Punter Tim Masthay ranked 27th and tied for 21st in gross and net punting last year, respectively.
Detroit's special teams were in disarray and thus are being turned over almost completely. Replacing the retired Jason Hanson, the Lions brought in San Francisco's David Akers hoping he can regain his 2011 form. Showing the fickle nature of kicking in the NFL, Akers was an All-Pro after going 44-of-52 on his field-goal attempts in 2011 before plummeting to a 69 percent mark (29-of-42) last season, the third-worst mark in the league just ahead of Crosby. The Lions drafted Sam Martin out of Appalachian State in the fifth round in April, the only punter besides Locke to be drafted. Martin was a first-team All-American last year, averaging 45.9 yards per punt. Detroit has competition for both in camp, as well, in relative unknowns Havard Rugland (kicker) and Blake Clingan (punter). The Lions are also replacing returner Stefan Logan, who struggled mightily last season with sometimes mental mistakes. There are no clear replacements though, with Detroit leaving it to a camp competition between Patrick Edwards, Steven Miller, Mike Thomas, Theo Riddick, Michael Spurlock, and maybe even Reggie Bush. Ryan Broyles could figure in, but may be held away from returning as he returns from a knee injury.
Priefer says: "Probably if we had to play Detroit tomorrow I would think we would put Marcus back there still because I just trust him. I think Marcus now, it's funny, this is Year 4 I think, but Year 3 of him with two years under his belt. He's done a great job. Typical, ball security has always been a big thing for me and always will be. I know he had the muff last year in the Packer game, which was a tough punt to handle, but he's done a job again this spring. He's got the best hands of the group, in terms of catching punts, and right now I put him at No. 1."
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