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Rhys-ons For Optimism on Special Teams

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Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the good folks at Sprint are back on board with The Daily Norseman for another go-around, too.  The Sprint logo is rather huge, and I apologize for that, but Sprint does (heart) us and all, so there you go.

As we all know, the Vikings really haven't done a whole heck of a lot this off-season.  They lost Chester Taylor (which we cared about) and Karl Paymah (which we did not), and added DE Michael Montgomery and K Rhys Lloyd while retaining a group of contributors from last season.  It's the addition of Lloyd that I want to focus on in this particular post, because while signing a guy simply to be a kickoff specialist might not be the most exciting thing in the world, it stands to reason that the man from Dover, England could have a bigger impact on the 2010 Minnesota Vikings than any of us are expecting.

Field position is everything in today's National Football League, particularly when your team has a defense as good as the one sported by the Minnesota Vikings.  While doing research for the potential impact that a kickoff specialist might have on the Vikings, I turned to the good folks over at Football Outsiders, as anyone should.  Within their "Drive Stats," they have the average starting field position that opposing teams had when they took the field against the Vikings defense.  According to Football Outsiders, Viking opponents, on average, started their drives at their own 27.84-yard line, a figure which was good for seventh-best in the NFL.  The Dallas Cowboys were #1 in that area with an average of the 25.6-yard line.  Now, that doesn't sound like very much of a difference, but every little bit helps.

But if you combine the drive stats with a few kicking stats. . .well, let's see here.  This is a table of the top ten teams in terms of opponent's starting field position according to the drive stats, along with the percentage of kickoffs that went as touchbacks.

Rank Team Field Position Touchback Percentage
1 Dallas Cowboys 25.6 38.64%
2 New England Patriots 26.62 22.34%
3 Baltimore Ravens 26.78 5.38%
4 Houston Texans 26.83 12.2%
5 St. Louis Rams 27.48 15.1%
6 Denver Broncos 27.51 35.9%
7 Minnesota Vikings 27.84 4.51%
8 Atlanta Falcons 28.05 36.84%
9 Pittsburgh Steelers 28.26 3.7%
10 New York Jets 28.30 11.24%

 

Now, these numbers don't tell the entire story.  Obviously, some of the teams on this list had significantly more prolific offenses than others, and as a result had to kick off more times.  In fact, Ryan Longwell had more kickoffs than any player in the NFL last season, booting the ball into play at the start of a half or after a score 98 times.  Of those 98 Longwell kickoffs, only five of them went into the end zone and stayed there. . .and that's in a situation where he was playing half of his games indoors, and really didn't encounter much inclement weather in his road games, either.  To contrast, as we all remember, New Orleans Saints' kickoff specialist Thomas Morstead caused Percy Harvin to take a knee in the end zone four times in the NFC Championship Game alone.  Remember how frustrating that was?

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a difference maker.

The reason that the Vikings are so highly ranked on the list of average starting field position allowed up there is because the special teams played exceedingly well in 2009, allowing an average of 22.6 yards per kick return.  And they did that knowing that the returner was almost always going to be bringing the ball out of the end zone.

Contrast Longwell's performance with that of our new arrival, Rhys Lloyd.  In 2009, Lloyd booted the ball away 72 times.  Of those 72 kickoffs, 21 found their way into the end zone, almost a 30% clip.  And while I realize that Charlotte, NC isn't exactly Buffalo or Pittsburgh or anything like that, that's still a pretty darn good percentage for a kicker that does the majority of his work outdoors.  Imagine what those numbers could look like inside the cozy confines of the Metrodome.  It certainly would make things easier for Heath Farwell, Kenny Onatolu, Eric Frampton, and the rest of our kick coverage guys, wouldn't it?

Yeah, signing a kickoff guy isn't the most glamorous thing the Vikings have ever done. . .and with the draft less than a week away, it probably won't be the most glamorous thing they do this off-season.  But for a team as close to a championship as the Minnesota Vikings are. . .and don't let anyone tell you otherwise, they're right there. . .every little advantage helps, and a guy like Rhys Lloyd might be enough to give us that itty-bitty, teeny-tiny edge we need.