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Vikings Training Camp Outlook & Insights: Special Teams

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Normally I wouldn’t include a training camp preview section on special teams, but this year it seems worthwhile as there are likely to be more significant changes and competition.

So, let’s have a look, starting with the camp competitions.

Competition is Good

For incumbent special team specialists, job security is relatively low this year overall. Long-snapper Kevin McDermott and punter Ryan Quigley beat off competition in the recent past to keep their jobs, and are unopposed in training camp this year. But kicker Kai Forbath and Kick and Punt Returner Marcus Sherels are facing very real competition for their jobs.

Kick and Punt Returner Competition

Well, the kick returner competition is already over, it appears. First-round draft pick Mike Hughes has already been named starting kick returner by special teams coach Mike Priefer, removing that duty from Marcus Sherels’ portfolio to start training camp.

The punt returner competition is still on, however, as Sherels was named the starting punt returner - for now - by Mike Priefer to start training camp.

Sherels has been primarily the punt returner over his long and improbable career as a Minnesota Viking. He made the practice squad after a post-draft tryout in 2010, and I’m pretty sure may be the only living human to have both sacked Aaron Rodgers and have at least 5 punt returns for a touchdown. He also owns the record for most punt return yards by a Viking. He also turned 30 years old and was extended on a one-year deal for $1.4 million, with $500k dead cap.

Sherels has worked hard as a special teamer to stay on the roster, as he has always been way down the depth chart at CB. And he’s proven to be valuable as a special teamer as well. Perhaps the best punt returner the Vikings have had, and he has also done well in other special teams duties too.

But right now, his roster spot is hanging by a thread. The Vikings added two quality corners in Hughes and Holton Hill, which cast a deep shadow over him on that depth chart. He has already lost the kick returner job. That leaves punt returner and his other special teams duties as a reason to make the roster.

Priefer qualified his status as punt returner as well - punt returner for now - which doesn’t bode well, although he did say there would continue to be competition at both returner positions. I’m not sure how much comfort Sherels will take from that.

I suspect the main reason Sherels is still the punt returner is because he’s done it for the past seven seasons, and Priefer doesn’t trust Hughes at that position yet. During the off-season, Priefer remarked that Hughes was still learning some of the finer points as a punt returner, often things not taught much as a punt returner at the college level, so to some degree that was expected.

But in a presser earlier during the off-season, Priefer elaborated a little on his evaluation process, saying that there is always a lot of projection when it comes to picking guys for the final roster spots. He said you don’t just consider where they are now, or at the end of training camp, but also where they may be in the next couple months after that.

With that in mind, if Mike Hughes continues to show progress as a punt returner during training camp and pre-season, I suspect he’ll win that job too. Bottom line, it’s not so much about what Sherels does in training camp, it’s more about what Hughes does.

If Sherels gets cut, and I expect he will be, I doubt that will be the end of his NFL career. I have no doubt another team will pick him up for his special teams ability.

Kicker Competition

The Vikings drafted Daniel Carlson in the 5th round to compete against Kai Forbath. It’s pretty seldom that a team drafts a kicker that high who doesn’t win the job. Still, Carlson needs to win the job - it won’t just be handed to him. Forbath was decent last year, even if he wasn’t everything you want in a kicker either.

Having said all that, Carlson has had the advantage since he was drafted. And that advantage is plain and simple- he has the stronger leg and can kick it farther. That translates into two important things during a game:

1) He can kick it out of the endzone, eliminating the opponent’s kick return game, while Forbath cannot.

2) He has longer range on field goals, which can translate into more points on stalled drives.

With those advantages, the only way Carlson is likely to lose the kicker competition is if he proves to be less accurate than Forbath on field goals, which so far has not been the case. I believe Carlson had the accuracy advantage during the off-season, and so far since training camp it’s been fairly even.

That being the case, if the status quo prevails throughout August, Carlson will be the new kicker. The job remains his to lose. Anything could happen- he could get a serious case of the yipes in pre-season that kills his chances - but short of that it seems a pretty good bet Carlson will kick things off for the Vikings week one.

Kick-Off Rule Change Could Have a Big Impact

Continuing their effort to try to reduce injuries by making rule changes, the NFL changed the rules on kickoffs during the off-season in ways that could have a big impact on how that play unfolds this season.

The simplified version of the changes is that the league tried to make kickoffs more similar to punts in terms of where players can line up on both sides of the ball and eliminating the running start for the kicking team players.

Here is a summary of the changes and how they may impact they play.

The other changes require the return team to have 8 of their players within a 15-yard ‘set-up zone’ 10 yards off the kickoff line. Normally, without some penalty enforcement, this means they must line up intially between the kicking team’s 45 yard line and the return team’s 40 yard line. There is also no contact allowed for 15 yards past the kickoff line prior to the ball hitting the ground or being touched, which normally would be the 50 yard line.

For the kicking team, they must be spread out. Specifically, they must have at least 5 players on either side of the ball (in the middle of the field), at least 2 players outside the numbers on both sides, and at least 2 players between the numbers and the hash marks on both sides.

There are no wedge blocks (blockers together) allowed anymore. There had only been two-player wedge blocks allowed since 2009. Lastly, if the ball hits the ground in the endzone it’s an automatic touchback. A player doesn’t need to kneel down with the ball anymore.

Here is a nice visual of the rule changes that make it easier to visualize.

So, on a normal kickoff you’ll have 10 guys spread out on the 35-yard line for the kicking team, and the return team will have 8 guys between the kicking team 45 and their 40 yard line. Presumably they will also have one guy deep middle in the end zone and one on either side around the 10 yard line or so.

The Vikings are fortunate that special teams coach Mike Priefer was on the committee that designed the new rules, so he should be as familiar with them, and the potential impact of them, as anyone.

So how will all this impact the play?

A couple ways most likely.

First, the elimination of the running start for the kicking team means you need guys that can run on your kicking team. Most likely that means no linemen or at best only a couple if they can run. That will likely change to some degree the special teamers used on kickoff teams. Probably not a lot, but a little. Linebackers, tight-ends, corners, safeties, running backs and other offensive players trained to tackle on special teams most likely.

For the return team, the focus will be on guys that can block in space. That could include a few more athletic linemen, along with tight ends, receivers, running backs, along with defensive players trained to block on special teams.

Like it was before, the fastest guys will likely be outside, and the bigger (and slower) guys inside.

Beyond that, however, if remains to be seen how kickoffs will play out. There will be a lot of space on either side of the initial return team setup zone, and there could be some variations in terms of how return teams choose to block the return.

I imagine most return teams will regroup their front 8 guys back around the 20 or however far they can run during the hang time, and proceed with their blocking scheme and assignments from there. Engaging too soon up the field and they won’t be able to hold their blocks long enough, and too far down the field they will be too late to do any good.

The key, as always, is to have blocks timed to just before the returner is there and can make his cut. The challenge, as always, is for blockers to do that while not looking back to see where the returner is or they’ll miss their block.

For the kicking team, I imagine they will still run down the field, staying in their lanes as best they can, before closing in on the returner.

But I suspect the more open field nature of the play, given the change in initial player positioning compared to last year, along with more downfield blockers than is the case on a punt, may create more opportunities for the return team. Distance and hang time of kickoffs vs. punts favors longer returns on kickoffs, but for teams without a kicker who can kick it out of the endzone, there may need to be a re-think what the ideal distance vs. hang-time should be on a kickoff.

In any case, there will be a greater premium on special teamers that are good open field tacklers - and blockers - than may have been the case before. There may also be an even higher premium on kickers that can kick it out of the endzone too - saving the kicking team the risk of having to defend the play.

It should be interesting to watch these plays during the pre-season, to get a better idea of how teams will approach the play with the new rules. Even after a few pre-season games to figure things out a little more, I would expect kickoffs - at least those that are returned - to have a little more drama than normal for at least the first few weeks. Maybe longer.

I would expect Mike Priefer, as one of the better special teams coaches, to be better prepared than most - which may well include giving Daniel Carlson the kicking duties to spare him the drama of defending kickoffs. But he may also be a little more crafty in disguising his approach to kickoff returns during the pre-season - giving Mike Hughes a little more opportunity to make an early impact once the season starts.

Guys like Brian O’Neill, David Morgan, CJ Ham, Blake Bell, Tyler Conklin and whoever the #3 RB is may prove valuable as key blockers on a kickoff return that springs Mike Hughes for a big gain or touchdown.

Stay tuned.

Overall Special Teams Outlook

Pro Football Focus ranked the Vikings special teams the number one unit in the NFL last season, largely on the defensive side - allowing very little in terms of punt or kick returns - rather than having big return averages or a kicker who can nail any field goal inside of 60 yards. That was achieved with several good coverage guys- Kentrell Brothers, Eric Wilson, Marcus Sherels, Ben Gedeon, Anthony Harris and Jayron Kearse among them - along with good coaching from Mike Priefer.

Having most of those guys back will be helpful, although Sherels is more of a question mark and Brothers is suspended the first four games. But upgrades at the return positions and kicker may offer more offensive opportunities this year as well - while making defending kickoffs less of an adventure. The new kickoff rules may help too.

But when your team’s depth is higher quality, as is the case with the Vikings, that usually means that with good coaching and specialists, you should have good special teams units as well. I expect that will continue to be the case with the Vikings this year, with the chance to be better if guys like Daniel Carlson and Mike Hughes prove to be upgrades, while the less heralded blockers and tacklers on the special teams units will most likely continue to be among the best in the league with Mike Priefer’s coaching.

As a side note, it’s too bad Hercules Mata’afa was injured early on. I don’t know what kind of linebacker or defensive tackle he would have made this year, but I think he has all the qualities to be an outstanding special teams player. I guess we’ll have to wait until next year to find out.


Do you think the new kickoff rules will...

This poll is closed

  • 40%
    Make the play more exciting
    (184 votes)
  • 26%
    Ruin how kickoffs should be
    (120 votes)
  • 33%
    Not have much impact
    (153 votes)
457 votes total Vote Now