Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.


Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.


Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.


Vikings 2013 look ahead: Specialists

Posted by: Mark Craig under Vikings, Bears, NFC, NFL draft, Packers, Leslie Frazier, Vikings fans, Chris Kluwe, Leslie Frazier, Percy Harvin, Ryan Longwell Updated: January 25, 2013 - 8:19 AM
The Vikings coaching staff and front office are in the process of fully evaluating their roster as they plan for the opening of free agency in March as well as April’s NFL Draft. As General Manager Rick Spielman, head coach Leslie Frazier and their respective staffs put their heads together, the Access Vikings team is doing the same. We are in the middle of delivering snapshot evaluations of every position group. Today, we look at the specialists.
 
SPECIALISTS
 
Get excited: The Vikings have the best place-kicker in football and he just turned 23 three weeks ago. Now, kicking is a crazy, unpredictable facet of football (see: D. Akers 2011 vs. D. Akers 2012), but there’s nothing to suggest that Blair Walsh won’t be confidently kicking footballs as a Viking for the next 10-15 years.
Last year’s sixth-round draft pick made the Pro Bowl and, more impressively, was a runaway winner in All-Pro voting as he shattered numerous rookie, team and league kicking records during a season that was better than anyone, including Walsh, imagined. The kid made 35 of 38 regular-season field goals, set the NFL record for most 50-yard field goals (going 10 for 10) and bombed a team-record 53 kickoff touchbacks.
Walsh was clutch from the second he kicked the game-tying 55-yarder as the fourth quarter expired against Jacksonville in Week 1. Fittingly, he finished the regular season by kicking a last-second 29-yarder to beat the Packers and clinch a playoff berth. Walsh also made his only post-season attempt a week later at Green Bay, so his final total was 36 of 39, or 92.3 percent. When a leg that big can also make 92.3 percent, well, that’s something special.
Vikings fans also should be excited to have Mike Priefer as special teams coach. Respect for his teaching skills, schemes and presence is gaining momentum around the league. That’s why the Bears interviewed him for their head coaching job.
One of the reasons the Vikings took a chance on Walsh was their faith in Priefer. It was Priefer who made the difficult call and suggested it was time to replace Ryan Longwell, a popular and accurate long-time veteran kicker. And it was Priefer who helped Walsh go from a 60-percent kicker as a senior at Georgia to the NFL’s best place-kicker just a year later.
 
Keep an eye on: No one outside of Winter Park saw Ryan Longwell being replaced a year ago at this time. No one outside of Winter Park even thought Longwell needed to be replaced at this time a year ago. So it’s best to keep your eyes open as 31-year-old punter Chris Kluwe enters his ninth season.
That’s not a suggestion that Kluwe needs to be replaced. In fact, the feeling here is the complete opposite.
Although some fans, reporters and even Priefer grew exhausted by Kluwe’s over-exposed persona, the dude can still punt better than anyone else has in team history. He had a few uncharacteristic hiccups and shanks, but, remember, he also had a bit of a bum left knee, which required post-season surgery to repair the meniscus.
Something else critics should remember: His net average (39.7) was a career high. His gross (45.0) was third highest in his career. And not to be overlooked is the roles that he and long snapper Cullen Loeffler played in Walsh’s success.
Kluwe’s outspoken, Twitter-crazed nature suggests there always will be a cause for which he will feel the need to draw attention. But that’s manageable. There are enough hours in the day to do all the necessary things that go into being a good punter and still have about 20 hours left to eat, sleep, play video games and have a life while fighting for gay marriage rights, Ray Guy’s Hall of Fame credentials or who knows what else is around the next corner.
 
Reason for worry: The kick and punt return positions aren’t necessarily a worry. In fact, Marcus Sherels provides the opposite of worry. He’s a comfortable fallback plan at both spots. Having him is having a sense of relief that the ball isn’t going to pop loose near the goal line on a kickoff or hit the ground and roll 25 more yards on a punt.
However, the cost of that comfort is a low percentage of big plays in the return game. They aren’t impossible, of course. The guy did return a punt 77 yards for a touchdown at Detroit. But he’s never going to be a threat like Percy Harvin.
Harvin is the one to worry about here. He’s one of the best kick returners in the league. It would be a shame to deny the team the benefits of that incredible talent, but it’s something the coaches and front office will no doubt worry more about now that they’ve seen Harvin’s health last only nine games.
Harvin wasn’t injured on a kickoff return. But the wear and tear of extra touches – particularly ones that come on the most violent play in football – can’t be dismissed when the guy taking the beating is the second-best player on the team.
Replacing Harvin on kickoffs would be much easier if the Vikings found an electric game-breaker to replace him. Even better would be a replacement who also excelled at punt returns.
What are the chances of that happening when there are so many other needs with higher priority status? Not great. After all, the Vikings have a young, comfortable Plan B.

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Tampa Bay - WP: J. McGee 6 FINAL
Toronto - LP: B. Morrow 5
Cleveland - LP: B. Shaw 4 FINAL
Detroit - WP: P. Coke 6
Washington - WP: J. Zimmermann 3 FINAL
NY Mets - LP: J. Niese 0
Chicago Cubs - LP: J. Turner 3 FINAL
Pittsburgh - WP: E. Volquez 7
Miami - WP: A. DeSclafani 5 FINAL
Philadelphia - LP: J. Papelbon 4
Cincinnati - LP: M. Leake 2 FINAL
Milwaukee - WP: M. Garza 9
Boston - WP: J. Kelly 8 FINAL
Kansas City - LP: J. Vargas 4
Minnesota - WP: T. May 6 FINAL
Chicago WSox - LP: H. Noesi 4
Colorado - LP: J. Lyles 1 FINAL
St. Louis - WP: M. Gonzales 4
Atlanta - LP: M. Minor 3 FINAL
Texas - WP: C. Lewis 10
Houston - WP: D. Keuchel 6 FINAL
LA Angels - LP: H. Santiago 1
Los Angeles - WP: C. Kershaw 4 FINAL
San Francisco - LP: Y. Petit 2
San Diego - LP: O. Despaigne 6 FINAL
Arizona - WP: Z. Spruill 8
Oakland - WP: J. Lester 4 FINAL
Seattle - LP: C. Young 0
NY Yankees - LP: D. Robertson 2 FINAL
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Miami 10 FINAL
Buffalo 29
Jacksonville 10 FINAL
Washington 41
Dallas 26 FINAL
Tennessee 10
Arizona 25 FINAL
NY Giants 14
New England 30 FINAL
Minnesota 7
New Orleans 24 FINAL
Cleveland 26
Atlanta 10 FINAL
Cincinnati 24
Detroit 7 FINAL
Carolina 24
St. Louis 19 FINAL
Tampa Bay 17
Seattle 21 FINAL
San Diego 30
NY Jets 24 FINAL
Green Bay 31
Kansas City 17 FINAL
Denver 24
Houston 30 FINAL
Oakland 14
Chicago 28 FINAL
San Francisco 20
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Indianapolis
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Atlanta
Boise State 38 FINAL
Connecticut 21
Indiana 42 FINAL
Bowling Green 45
Ga Southern 38 FINAL
Georgia Tech 42
Syracuse 40 FINAL
Central Mich 3
UCF 10 FINAL
(18) Missouri 38
Massachusetts 31 FINAL
Vanderbilt 34
Ohio U 14 FINAL
Marshall 44
West Virginia 40 FINAL
Maryland 37
Kent State 0 FINAL
(23) Ohio State 66
Pittsburgh 42 FINAL
FIU 25
East Carolina 28 FINAL
Virginia Tech 21
Louisville 21 FINAL
Virginia 23
Wyoming 14 FINAL
(2) Oregon 48
Air Force 48 FINAL
Georgia State 38
(13) Georgia 35 FINAL
(14) So Carolina 38
Arkansas 49 FINAL
Texas Tech 28
Iowa State 20 FINAL
Iowa 17
Miami-Ohio 10 FINAL
Michigan 34
Kansas 3 FINAL
Duke 41
NC State 49 FINAL
So Florida 17
Arkansas State 20 FINAL
Miami-Florida 41
Miss State 35 FINAL
South Alabama 3
Louisiana 15 FINAL
(10) Ole Miss 56
Minnesota 7 FINAL
TCU 30
Illinois 19 FINAL
Washington 44
Army 0 FINAL
(16) Stanford 35
Western Mich 45 FINAL
Idaho 33
Eastern Mich 3 FINAL
Old Dominion 17
Southern Miss 12 FINAL
(3) Alabama 52
Northern Ill 48 FINAL
UNLV 34
Tulsa 21 FINAL
Fla Atlantic 50
ULM 0 FINAL
(8) LSU 31
Wake Forest 24 FINAL
Utah State 36
Western Ky 47 FINAL
Middle Tennessee 50
TX-San Antonio 13 FINAL
(25) Oklahoma State 43
Purdue 14 FINAL
(9) Notre Dame 30
Kentucky 30 FINAL
Florida 36
New Mexico St 24 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 42
Tennessee 10 FINAL
(4) Oklahoma 34
(17) USC 31 FINAL
Boston College 37
Navy 35 FINAL
Texas State 21
(12) UCLA 20 FINAL
Texas 17
Penn State 13 FINAL
Rutgers 10
Rice 10 FINAL
(6) Texas A&M 38
(15) Arizona State 38 FINAL
Colorado 24
(24) Nebraska 55 FINAL
Fresno State 19
Nevada 28 FINAL
Arizona 35
(5) Auburn 9/18/14 6:30 PM
(20) Kansas State
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So Florida
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Rice
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(13) Georgia
Georgia Tech 9/20/14 11:00 AM
Virginia Tech
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(11) Michigan State
Iowa 9/20/14 11:00 AM
Pittsburgh
Bowling Green 9/20/14 11:00 AM
(19) Wisconsin
Maryland 9/20/14 11:30 AM
Syracuse
Tulane 9/20/14 11:30 AM
Duke
Hawaii 9/20/14 1:00 PM
Colorado
Marshall 9/20/14 1:00 PM
Akron
North Carolina 9/20/14 2:30 PM
East Carolina
Army 9/20/14 2:30 PM
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(21) BYU
(6) Texas A&M 9/20/14 2:30 PM
SMU
Rutgers 9/20/14 2:30 PM
Navy
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Kansas
Utah 9/20/14 2:30 PM
Michigan
Florida 9/20/14 2:30 PM
(3) Alabama
Louisville 9/20/14 2:30 PM
FIU
Fla Atlantic 9/20/14 3:00 PM
Wyoming
Indiana 9/20/14 3:00 PM
(18) Missouri
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Minnesota
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Illinois
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Penn State
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Washington
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Vanderbilt
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Arizona
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Boise State
(2) Oregon 9/20/14 9:30 PM
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Oregon State
Los Angeles 1 FINAL
San Jose 1
Montreal 16 FINAL
Edmonton 33
Toronto 33 FINAL
Calgary 40
Winnipeg 9 FINAL
Brt Columbia 26
Saskatchewan 3 FINAL
Hamilton 28

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