This last segment of our Minnesota Vikings Training Camp look-ahead series shouldn't take too long, as we're going to take a look at the special teams. We know who the main players are at each spot, so let's just get into it.
Blair Walsh will be back as the kicker for the Vikings in 2015, and he's coming off of the worst season of his career. He had more missed field goals in 2014 alone (nine) as he had in the first two seasons of his career combined (seven). Included in that was a particularly bad stretch against the New York Jets and the Detroit Lions where he went just 1-for-6 (although one of those was a 68-yard attempt). It wasn't really a function of having to adjust to TCF Bank Field necessarily, either. Of his nine misses, four came at home (including a kick that was blocked and returned for a score), while five came on the road. . .three in the aforementioned indoor game against Detroit.
Outside of the awful two-game stretch, Walsh really wasn't that bad in 2014. However, when placed next to the standard he had set in his first two seasons, his 2014 season was a bit of a disappointment. He's still a big-time weapon on kickoffs as well. Hopefully his accuracy on field goals will return to the level that we've become accustomed to.
Punting, on the other hand, is a different story. Jeff Locke had a pretty bad year by just about any standard in 2014, and was in fact rated as the league's worst punter by Pro Football Focus. Per PFF, Locke had two games where he graded in the "green" with a score of +1.0 or higher. . .and eight games where he graded in the "red" with a score of -1.0 or worse. Still, the team decided not to bring any competition to Mankato, so the job appears to be his for this season. I assume he's still going to serve as the holder, and I'm not enough of a special teams guru to know whether or not his holds may have contributed to Walsh's issues or not. You have to think that the leash will be significantly shorter this year for him, however.
Speaking of worst PFF grades at their position, another Vikings' special teams player falls under that heading as well, that being long snapper Cullen Loeffler. Loeffler is one of the longest-tenured members of the Vikings, and was given a one-year contract this offseason. However, the team did bring in competition for the long snapper spot in the form of Kevin McDermott. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we have LONG SNAPPER DRAMA in Mankato. McDermott was a teammate of Locke's at UCLA. . .I'm not sure if that gives him any sort of advantage or anything like that.
On the return side of things, Cordarrelle Patterson didn't provide nearly the electricity in his second year as he did as a rookie. After averaging 32.4 yards/return in 2013, he dropped to just 25.6 yards/return last season and had just one return of more than 50 yards. Like on the receiving side of things, I don't have a good explanation for Patterson's massive drop-off last season. . .I think everyone's just hoping that, even if he doesn't get a real grip on things as a receiver, he can at least get back to what he was in the return game.
Marcus Sherels continues to serve as the punt returner for the Vikings, and while he was steady, he also had a bit of an off year compared to previous efforts. He averaged a very good 11 yards/return last year, but that was a decrease of over 4 yards/return from his 2013 season when he was second in the NFL. His longest return of the year was also just 35 yards. Punt returns are what keeps Sherels on the roster, and if he's starting to drop off a bit, his spot on the big club could be in serious jeopardy.
The one name that keeps popping up to potentially replace Sherels. . .and, potentially, Patterson. . .on returns is rookie Stefon Diggs. Diggs is regarded as sort of a Percy Harvin lite, and while he may have some work to do as a receiver, he's already a player that can be very dangerous with the ball in his hands. If he can continue to show the same open field ability that he did at Maryland, he could make enough of an impact early on to make Sherels expendable and possibly swipe Patterson's spot on kickoff returns.
I think that covers just about everyone on the specialist side of things, folks, and just in time for the start of Training Camp. We're going to effort to bring you the most thorough coverage that we can, and if anything breaks, we'll have it here for you straight away.