Vikings draft punter in fifth round, perhaps to replace Kluwe

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 27, 2013 - 11:24 PM

UCLA punter Jeff Locke, drafted in the fifth round, looks like competition.

UCLA’s Jeff Locke, shown punting in the Senior Bowl, is coming to the Vikings. They took him in the fifth round of the NFL draft on Saturday, perhaps to replace Chris Kluwe.

Photo: File photo by G.M. Andrews • Associated Press ,

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Vikings punter Chris Kluwe took it in stride when told Saturday afternoon that his team had just used its fifth-round draft pick on Jeff Locke, a big-legged punter from UCLA.

“If the Vikings end up cutting me, I’ll find a job somewhere else,” Kluwe said. “That’s the nature of the NFL. We all end up getting replaced by younger, cheaper guys eventually.”

Playing through right groin and left knee injuries in 2012, Kluwe had the third highest gross average (45.0 yards) and best net average (39.9) of his eight-year career. But he also finished 31st in the league in punts inside the 20, had some uncharacteristic and ill-timed shanks, and saw the constant attention from his social activism and social media presence wear thin with the coaching staff.

“I don’t know if [being so outspoken] is the reason they drafted a punter or not,” said Kluwe, who has generated national and international attention for his support of gay marriage rights. “They haven’t said anything to me about it.”

Asked after the draft if that was the case, Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said, “It has nothing to do with anything Chris Kluwe is off the field. When we’re making decisions, we’re purely making them based on trying to bring in the best competition possible. This was just another normal personnel move.

“I have no issues with [Kluwe]. If Chris Kluwe wants to express his opinion, that’s his right. That’s his freedom of speech.”

A year ago, the Vikings drafted kicker Blair Walsh in the sixth round and said he would compete with veteran Ryan Longwell. Longwell was cut a week later.

Spielman was asked if it’s possible Kluwe could face the same fate this year.

“I’m not going to comment on anything right now,” Spielman said. “We just finished the draft and signing college free agents. We’ll sit down with the coaches and analyze where we’re at with everything. But right now, going forward, we expect that to be a competition.”

Not surprisingly, Kluwe wasn’t watching the draft on Saturday. A man of many interests was with his band, Tripping Icarus, at Flowers Studio in Uptown. They were recording backup vocals on their fourth album, although Kluwe did admit that he had heard the rumors that the Vikings might draft a punter.

“I actually was signing autographs at the [Metrodome] during a draft event and I went on KFAN,” Kluwe said. “They were interviewing me and [safety] Harrison Smith. I said, `How awkward would that be if they drafted a punter while I’m still here?’”

Well, we’re about to find out. Or maybe not.

Teams don’t keep two punters and typically don’t draft ones they’re not committed to keeping. So Kluwe may never get his wish to “just compete for the job and see what happens.”

“I’ve put my product out on the field,” Kluwe said. “Statistically, I’m the best punter the Vikings have ever had.”

Kluwe owns team gross punting records for a game (57.5), a season (47.6) and a career (44.4). Locke, meanwhile, had a 44.2-yard career average at UCLA and was a semifinalist for the 2012 Ray Guy Award as the nation’s top punter.

Speaking of Guy, one of Kluwe’s causes in 2012 was the Hall of Fame candidacy of the former Raiders punter. Last December, Kluwe was fined $5,250 for a uniform violation when he covered the 50th Anniversary Hall of Fame patch on his jersey with a Post-it note with the words “Vote for Ray Guy.”

Special teams coach Mike Priefer wasn’t amused when asked about it the next week.

“I don’t even want to talk about that,” Priefer said. “Those distractions are getting old for me, to be quite honest with you. Do I think Ray Guy deserves to be in the Hall of Fame? Absolutely. But there’s other ways of going about doing it, in my opinion. … [Kluwe] needs to focus on punting and holding [on place kicks].”

Perhaps he no longer does.

Asked what the Vikings told him during a private workout before the draft, Locke said, “They just told me they want me to come in and punt and [hold] to the best of my abilities.”

Kluwe also went to UCLA and said he met Locke on the sideline during last year’s UCLA-USC game.

“He’s a good guy, I like him,” Kluwe said. “There won’t be any friction. I’ll try to show him the ropes. And if I’m released, I’ll be disappointed because I would prefer to stay in Minnesota. But as players, we don’t have a say in making that call.”

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