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.

ADVERTISEMENT

New England 2/1/15 5:30 PM
Seattle
Detroit 69 FINAL
Philadelphia 89
Portland 94 FINAL
Cleveland 99
Sacramento 102 FINAL
Toronto 119
Boston 98 FINAL
Minnesota 110
Dallas 94 FINAL
Houston 99
Denver 93 FINAL
New Orleans 85
Brooklyn 102 FINAL
Atlanta 113
Oklahoma City 92 FINAL
New York 100
Charlotte 86 FINAL
San Antonio 95
LA Clippers 94 FINAL
Utah 89
Washington 57 3rd Qtr 4:05
Phoenix 70
Toronto 1 FINAL(SO)
New Jersey 2
Pittsburgh 0 FINAL
Washington 4
Chicago 2 2nd Prd 8:01
Los Angeles 2
Temple 86 FINAL
UCF 62
Winthrop 75 FINAL
Coastal Carolina 68
Lafayette 59 FINAL
Colgate 54
Northeastern 60 FINAL
Drexel 65
Wake Forest 76 FINAL
Florida State 82
Rhode Island 64 FINAL
Fordham 63
Delaware 82 FINAL
James Madison 88
South Carolina 58 FINAL
LSU 64
New Hampshire 63 FINAL
Maine 58
Seton Hall 80 FINAL
Marquette 70
Binghamton 68 FINAL
UMBC 56
American Univ 54 FINAL
Navy 64
Elon 65 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 82
Wright State 76 FINAL
Oakland 84
Minnesota 58 FINAL
Penn State 63
Duquesne 55 FINAL
Richmond 86
SMU 63 FINAL
South Florida 52
Hartford 66 FINAL
Stony Brook 72
Albany 47 FINAL
Vermont 44
Hofstra 79 FINAL
William & Mary 100
UNC-Asheville 74 FINAL
Longwood 64
Radford 84 FINAL
Char Southern 77
Holy Cross 0 Postponed
Loyola-Maryland 0
Duke 73 FINAL
Notre Dame 77
Texas Tech 36 FINAL
Oklahoma 81
Oregon State 55 FINAL
Arizona State 73
Morehead State 82 FINAL
Austin Peay 69
Drake 69 FINAL
Bradley 57
Lehigh 62 FINAL
Bucknell 68
Rice 48 FINAL
Houston 59
Missouri State 57 FINAL
Illinois State 67
Loyola-Chicago 47 FINAL
Wichita State 58
Nebraska Omaha 64 FINAL
South Dakota St 86
Northern Iowa 59 FINAL
Southern Ill 52
Louisville 81 FINAL
Boston College 72
St Johns 74 FINAL
Creighton 77
East Carolina 58 FINAL
Memphis 70
Georgia Tech 70 FINAL
Miami-Florida 50
Miss State 73 FINAL
Ole Miss 79
Clemson 68 FINAL
NC State 57
Indiana 67 FINAL
Purdue 83
Kansas 64 FINAL
TCU 61
Oregon 56 FINAL
Arizona 90
Air Force 66 FINAL
San Jose St 52
Stanford 36 2nd Half
Washington 24
Rider 56 FINAL
Siena 49
Dayton 76 FINAL
Richmond 62
Eastern Kentucky 53 FINAL
Jacksonville St 73
Saint Josephs 0 Postponed
Saint Louis 0
UMBC 71 FINAL
Binghamton 55
Akron 60 FINAL
Ohio U 72
Ball State 72 FINAL
Miami-Ohio 55
Memphis 56 FINAL
Cincinnati 44
East Carolina 32 FINAL
(2) Connecticut 87
Murray State 59 FINAL
Eastern Illinois 75
Kent State 63 FINAL
Central Michigan 65
UT Martin 64 FINAL
Tennessee St 58
Eastern Michigan 56 FINAL
Western Mich 83
Bucknell 61 FINAL
Lehigh 76
Indiana 57 FINAL
Michigan State 72
Colgate 56 FINAL
Lafayette 58
Fordham 66 FINAL
Davidson 45
Duquesne 76 FINAL
St Bonaventure 64
George Mason 66 FINAL
VA Commonwealth 70
Detroit 59 FINAL
Youngstown St 58
Army 0 Postponed
Boston U 0
Loyola-Maryland 0 Postponed
Holy Cross 0
SMU 58 FINAL
Tulsa 74
Oklahoma St 54 FINAL
Kansas State 52
West Virginia 57 FINAL
Texas Tech 73
Denver 56 FINAL
South Dakota 82
Northwestern St 46 FINAL
Central Arkansas 63
Austin Peay 67 FINAL
SIU-Edwardsville 87
Kansas 61 FINAL
Iowa State 56
Bowling Green 50 FINAL
Northern Ill 67
Penn State 64 FINAL
Minnesota 75
San Jose St 80 FINAL
Air Force 83
Boise State 82 FINAL
Colorado State 83
Utah State 51 FINAL
Wyoming 86
San Diego State 50 FINAL
Fresno State 57
Nevada 52 FINAL
UNLV 75

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: What chance does the Wild have of making the playoffs?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT