Late on a Friday night. Insignificant preseason game in Buffalo. Only 2 minutes left.
Be honest, how many fans were still paying attention when the Vikings punt return unit aligned inside Ralph Wilson Stadium for the final time during last week’s 20-16 loss to the Bills?
“Hey,” Vikings cornerback Bobby Felder said. “No matter when the time comes for you to show you can make a play, you best always be ready.”
No matter how many eyes were watching and no matter how few of those observers will even vaguely remember the final punt of a dull exhibition, Bobby Felder knew it was a moment.
“It was another opportunity to show that I belong,” he said.
Buffalo’s Shawn Powell sent a punt to the Vikings 6. In most situations, special teams guidelines dictate that the return man steer clear. But Vikings coordinator Mike Priefer had given Felder the green light, and the young pup gladly hit the gas.
Felder caught the punt, set the return, then fired through a crease, bolting up the right sideline for 37 yards.
Again, it was far from a game-changing or career-altering breakthrough. But it was a moment. And for Felder, a promising defensive back who was an undrafted rookie and practice squad pawn in 2012, every moment means something.
“Coach Priefer gave me the go,” he said. “And I wanted to show him first that I had the heart and guts to respond.”
Felder is in an interesting position heading into the preseason’s final stretch. By month’s end, the Vikings will cut their roster from 90 players to 53. And for Felder to stick around, he’ll need to continue providing encouraging answers to a wide array of questions.
On defense, does he have enough strength and savvy to excel as a slot corner? And can he hold up if called upon to play outside? On special teams, can he become ultrareliable as a gunner in punt coverage? And will he leapfrog past Marcus Sherels to snag the punt return job?
Sunday’s preseason contest in San Francisco will be another test. In all those areas.
“This will be a big week for Bobby,” head coach Leslie Frazier said.
Frazier, Priefer and defensive coordinator Alan Williams have all been impressed with Felder’s eagerness to learn. Even more than that, his instinctiveness continues to stick out.
“He can kind of feel things,” Frazier said. “It doesn’t have to be just like you drew it up on the board because rarely does it happen that way when people start moving around on the football field. You need some guys who can have instincts to make plays and recognize things as they occur.”
Felder has always prided himself on that feel. He’s equally aware of how valuable his versatility can be as the Vikings assess his stock.
In Buffalo last week, in addition to the 37-yard punt return, Felder downed two Jeff Locke punts inside the 5-yard line and was in on six tackles on defense.
Noted Williams: “Now we always say that if we give you two reps and you make two good plays, we’ll give you four reps and see if you can make two more plays.”
Felder’s confidence has certainly risen from a year ago. He spent all of 2012 on the practice squad, an experience that was at times both a joy ride and a grind.
“It’s a humbling experience when you go out and you put so much work in every single day and you never play on Sundays,” he said. “You see these guys you’re going up against in practice making plays and you say, ‘Well, I was just guarding the guy.’ But I looked at it as a blessing. With how young I was, I felt like I needed to slow down a little bit — to take time out and to understand the game a little better.”
Now Felder senses an opening to prove he’s truly worthy of a spot on the 53-man roster.
“I’m a wait-and-see guy,” Williams said. “So I’m just going to wait and see how he plays. But, in the back of my mind, I do have high expectations for Bobby.”
Those expectations can create pressure. Felder, however, sees a golden opportunity.
“For me, I think the biggest thing now is trying not to do too much,” he said. “Because sometimes I feel like you can get a little too worked up to try and leave an impression and that can cause you to get out of whack. I have to remember to compete on every play, to hustle and to execute what’s asked of me.”