Vikings seek to strike gold again with rookies on special teams

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 31, 2013 - 6:16 PM
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Blair Walsh, front, excelled as a rookie kicker for the Vikings, earning All-Pro honors. Now, the Vikings hope to strike gold with another special teams rookie, punter Jeff Locke, left. “He’s got a big leg,’’ special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. “A real big leg.’’

Photo: CARLOS GONZALEZ • cgonzalez@startribune.com,

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Rick Gosselin, longtime NFL reporter for the Dallas Morning News, has been ranking the league’s special teams units for the past 33 years. Guess which Purple-clad squad was most special a year ago? ¶ No, it wasn’t the Super Bowl champion Ravens. It was the Vikings. ¶ Gosselin assigns points to teams based on where they stand in 22 objective categories. And according to Gosselin, the Vikings “booted the most field goals, committed the fewest turnovers and allowed the fewest points” on special teams a year ago. ¶ Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer returns for his third season in Minnesota. He’ll have many of the same unusually talented players to work with, such as defensive end Everson Griffen, a 6-3, 273-pounder with 4.6 speed. But he’ll also be introducing new faces in critical places, such as rookies Jeff Locke at punter and Cordarrelle Patterson at kick returner. ¶ Here’s a closer look at those two players, as well as All-Pro kicker Blair Walsh, the headliner in Gosselin’s defending champion special teams units.

BLAIR WALSH: Avoiding the sophomore slump

What’s more difficult? Getting to the top or staying on top? Blair Walsh is about to find out at the tender age of 23.

With seemingly nowhere to go but down, Walsh will try to avoid the sophomore slump, a phenomenon that all kickers who had good-to-great rookie years recognize as a distinct possibility. Right, Nick Folk?

“The sophomore slump is a good thing to acknowledge and understand,” Walsh said. “But, yeah, you don’t want to dwell on it.”

Walsh had perhaps the finest rookie season by a kicker in NFL history. He made 35 of 38 field-goal attempts. His NFL-record 10 field goals of 50 yards or longer came without a miss. His 141 points ranked second by a rookie in NFL history. And he also crushed the team record for touchbacks with 53.

Can he keep that going with a new holder [Locke] and three more outdoor games [seven] than a year ago?

“There’s always room for improvement,” Walsh said. “We’ve gone through every kick, every kickoff from last year. There are things I can do to improve. It’s really a never-ending process to maintain the kind of consistency you need at this level.”

CORDARRELLE PATTERSON: bigger version of Percy?

One of the reasons the Vikings traded back into the first round to nab Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson 29th overall was the confidence that he can make an immediate impact as a kick returner even if it takes him a full season or longer to develop into an elite NFL receiver.

“Kickoff return-wise,” Priefer said, “he has all the abilities and tools right now to be a factor. A major factor.”

Patterson and his predecessor, Percy Harvin, have similar skills in very dissimilar bodies. At 6-2, 220 pounds, Patterson is about 4 inches taller and 35 pounds heavier.

“The first thing you notice,” Priefer said, “is when he walks in your room and takes up the doorway. You’re like, ‘Wow, that is a big man.’ ”

A year ago, Harvin was leading the league with a 35.9-yard average per return with one touchdown when he was injured in the ninth game. Patterson averaged 28 yards per return with a touchdown in his only season at Tennessee.

“I think it would be unfair for me or anybody else in our organization to come out and say, ‘OK, Cordarrelle, you’re going to replace Percy Harvin,’ ” Priefer said. “That’s not fair to him. But I am excited about his ability and the direction we’re going.”

JEFF LOCKE: Pressure? What pressure?

Locke is the quietest punter the Vikings have had in nine seasons. Except for the bang that comes when his left foot makes contact with the football.

“He’s got a big leg,” Priefer said. “A real big leg.”

A year ago this time, Priefer was insisting that then-rookie Walsh had what it took — and then some — to replace a dependable longtime veteran in Ryan Longwell. Skeptics snickered. Walsh became a record-setting All-Pro first-teamer.

Well, here we go again.

Priefer’s belief in Locke convinced the Vikings to select him in the fifth round and quickly release yet another dependable longtime veteran in Chris Kluwe. Not only are skeptics snickering, they’re also suggesting the Vikings made the move only because they had grown tired of Kluwe’s attention-seeking actions for his many off-field causes and interests.

By comparison, camouflage draws more attention than Locke.

“I try not to look at it as me replacing Chris,” Locke said. “I do my thing and focus on my technique. Hopefully, the results speak for themselves. If I think about the pressure of the shoes I’m filling, the worse off I’ll be.”

Locke ranks second in UCLA history in punts (275) and average (44.23 yards per punt). He also showed this preseason that he has the skills and the leg strength to get the job done.

But, like it or not, there is pressure in replacing a guy who played here eight years and ranks No. 1 in franchise history in punting average (44.4) and No. 2 in net average (37.2). Especially when one considers that the Vikings are a run-oriented, ball-control team that depends heavily on favorable field position.

“We talked about that in our internal meetings [before the draft],” coach Leslie Frazier said. “We are structured a little bit different than some NFL teams. Special teams are a big part of it. [Punter] for us has a lot of weight, but we are confident Jeff can get the job done.”

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