Last season Pro Football Focus (PFF) ranked the Vikings special teams the best in the league. But rather than a ranking of field goal kickers and punters, the ranking also includes the coverage and return teams, and field goal units. And it was largely these units that gave the Vikings the #1 special teams ranking.
So who actually plays on special teams for the Vikings? When you’re putting together your 53-man roster predictions, you may want to consider who plays on special teams. At least who did last season. But more than that, you may want to know (if you didn’t already) more about the more unheralded guys who make their living on special teams.
CORE SPECIAL TEAMERS
These are they guys who play on all four kickoff and punt coverage and return units, and possibly field goal units as well. All these players had over 300 special teams snaps last season. They are listed in order of their special team grade by PFF, highest to lowest.
Eric Wilson - backup WLB behind Gedeon, Wilson was the highest rated special teamer for the Vikings last season.
C.J. Ham - also starting fullback, but Ham played over 100 more snaps as a special teamer than fullback.
Anthony Harris - backup strong safety, gunner and jammer.
Jayron Kearse - backup free safety, gunner and jammer as well.
Kentrell Brothers - backup MLB, Brothers has been one of the better special team players for the Vikings since he was drafted.
Marcus Sherels - near the bottom of the depth chart at cornerback, Sherels took on both punt and kick return duties last season, in addition to being a gunner on coverage units.
Ben Gedeon - despite being the starting base WLB, Gedeon had over 100 more snaps on special teams than on defense last season.
On any given coverage or return team, you’ll likely see all of the above guys, along with a couple from the list below, forming the special team unit. Typically the corners and safeties (and maybe a WR) will be on the outside positions, the linebackers and fullback inside of them, along with a lineman and/or a tight end near the middle.
With the possible exception of Sherels, all these core special teamers will very likely be back again this season. Brothers will serve a 4 game suspension to start the season.
SIGNIFICANT SPECIAL TEAMERS
These are guys who play on a couple of the special teams units, with over 100 snaps combined on special teams, once again ranked by PFF grade from highest to lowest. Although Weatherly had a slightly higher grade than Gedeon, all the Core Special Teamers had higher grades than the Significant Special Teamers.
Stephen Weatherly - backup defensive end, he was nearly a core special teamer as well last year, except he did not always play on the punt teams, although he finished the season on both. He had 212 snaps on special teams overall.
David Morgan - backup blocking TE, Morgan played mainly on the kickoff return unit, but also limited duty on the punt teams, as well as the field goal kick team.
Shamar Stephen - backup DT no longer with the team, Stephen played mainly on the kickoff return unit, and also both field goal units. Jalyn Holmes could be a candidate to replace Stephen’s services on special teams. So could Brian O’Neill.
Mackensie Alexander - if Alexander becomes the starting nickel cornerback, I expect he will be relieved of some/most of his special teams duties. He played mainly on the kickoff coverage and punt return teams. Mike Hughes could take over some of his duties.
Blake Bell - 3rd string TE, Bell saw action on all four punt/kick units, but not so much on kickoff coverage. He also was on the field goal kick team.
Emmanuel Lamur - backup SLB no longer on the team, Lamur played on both kickoff and punt coverage units mainly last year. Antwione Williams could be a candidate to replace him.
Tramaine Brock - backup CB, also no longer with the team, he played mainly on the kickoff coverage and punt return teams. Holton Hill is a possible candidate to replace him.
Most likely four in this group will need to be replaced this season.
I would be remiss not to include the specialists as well.
Kai Forbath or Daniel Carlson - competing for the kicking duties. Forbath was actually graded higher on kickoffs than field goals, but still slightly below average, and Carlson’s stronger leg would seem to give him a clear advantage on kickoffs. Forbath was in the bottom third among field goal kickers, so that creates an opportunity for Carlson as well.
Ryan Quigley - he didn’t have a great average on his punts last year, but that was partly by design. ST Coach Mike Priefer had him kick more for hang time and no return than distance, which makes some sense - trading a few yards of punting average for hopefully little to no return yards - thereby having a better net average and no big returns. Quigley also had relatively few touchbacks, making him the 5th highest rated punter by PFF last season. Quigley is also the holder on field goals.
Kevin McDermott - long-snapper, he fended off a brief challenge earlier in the off-season. He was the 9th highest graded long-snapper by PFF last season.
Marcus Sherels - long-time punt returner for the Vikings, and last season he took on kickoff return duties as well after Dalvin Cook went down and Jerick McKinnon saw more action at RB. As a punt returner, Sherels was graded 18th best, and as a kick returner 38th best last year among those with at least 10 return attempts. But in terms of average return, Sherels was 9th best among punt returners and 12th best among kick returners. ST Coach Mike Priefer has said that Mike Hughes will take over kick return duties at the beginning of training camp.
NEW SPECIAL TEAM CANDIDATES
Obviously Daniel Carlson is a key specialist competing at kicker, but beyond that there looks to be mostly continuity with last season among the special teams ranks, which is a good thing, especially having the top-ranked special teams last season.
Among those that need to be replaced, most are among the worst graded - Brock and Lamur especially - which provides some opportunity for upgrade.
I’ve mentioned Holton Hill, Mike Hughes, Jayln Holmes, Brian O’Neill and Antwione Williams as potential candidates to take on roles on special teams, but there are other possibilities as well. Tyler Conklin, Brandon Zylstra, Mike Boone, Ifeadi Odinegbo, Devante Downs, Jeff Badet, and Stacy Coley are others assuming they make the roster. I’ve seen most, if not all, of those names on special teams in training camp during the two days I was there.
But with the additions of Mike Hughes and Holton Hill at cornerback, both looking like starting-caliber corners in time, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep Marcus Sherels on the roster. He has been relieved of the extra kick-return duties he took on last year, but still does well at his other special teams jobs.
The key competition is at punt returner. Mike Hughes is competing there as well, as is Stacy Coley. But Sherels still holds the job for now. But if either Hughes or Coley gain Mike Priefer’s trust as a punt returner - and Mike Zimmer’s as well - Sherels’ tenure with the Vikings could come to an end. It sounds funny, but for a team lacking confidence in their best punt returner, and in need of a good special teams player as well, Sherels may even fetch a 7th round pick in a trade.
But for now we’ll have to wait and see how the prospective candidates for punt returner, as well as gunner jobs, fare in pre-season games.
Beyond that, there is also the challenge to replace Kentrell Brothers for the first four games as well. Perhaps a guy like Antwione Williams could take on extra duties, and/or a guy like Devante Downs could make the roster until Brothers returns from his suspension. We’ll see.
But with the new kickoff rules, and the on-going (but often unappreciated) importance of good special teams, the Vikings are fortunate to have a very good core group of veteran special teamers returning this year - and a chance to upgrade some positions as well.
How Important are Special Teams to Winning in the NFL?
This poll is closed
Important - hard to win without good special teams
Not that Important - winning usually comes down to offense and defense - rarely do special teams make a difference