This is the eighth in an eight-part series reviewing the 2016 Vikings and looking ahead by position. Previously: OL / RB, TE / WR / QB/ DL/ LB / DB
Special teams didn’t escape the highs and lows of a .500 season, contributing directly to both wins and losses between Blair Walsh misses, fumbles and coverage busts to return touchdowns from Marcus Sherels and Cordarrelle Patterson in the sixth Vikings season for special teams coordinator Mike Priefer.
The league’s best kick return team (27.3 yards per), featuring Patterson as an All-Pro selection, contrasted with the second-worst kickoff coverage (25.8 yards per). Punter Jeff Locke’s inconsistent season hit bottom against Dallas, when fill-in punt returner Adam Thielen also fumbled to set up a Cowboys touchdown. And the Vikings surrendered the first kickoff return for a touchdown in three years during Josh Huff’s 98-yard score in Philadelphia.
Patterson and Sherels comprised the league’s best return duo, ranking first and second, respectively, in average yardage. Punt coverage was also a bright spot, ranking eighth by allowing only eight yards per return. After doing so last year, the Vikings again sat atop the league with three kick/punt returns for touchdowns, tying the Chiefs.
The only blocked kick came in Jacksonville, when Linval Joseph got a piece of a desperation 61-yard field goal attempt in the closing minute. Then Joseph made an ill-thought-out leap over the Colts long snapper the following week to set up a touchdown. Opponents got a hand on three Vikings kicks: a field goal from Walsh, an extra point attempt by Kai Forbath and a partially blocked punt.
Options are open after the Vikings signed a kicker and punter to start the offseason while Locke and Patterson are pending free agents.
Under contract in 2017: K Kai Forbath, LS Kevin McDermott, K Marshall Koehn, P Taylor Symmank
Pending free agents: P Jeff Locke
Grades are based on a 1-5 scale, with ’5′ marking an excellent season, ’4′ for above-average, ’3′ for average, ’2′ for below-average and ’1′ for failure to perform. Players who did not accrue a season (weren’t on the active roster for at least six weeks) or played in three games or fewer are not graded. Based on game and practice observations, weekly film reviews and interviews.
Kai Forbath (3.5): Replaced Walsh in Week 11. Spent training camp in New Orleans, where he lost a competition to Wil Lutz. Knew McDermott and Locke through UCLA and workouts. Perfect on field goal attempts (15 of 15), including a long of 51 yards against the Colts — his only attempt beyond 50 yards for the Vikings. Missed a career-low three extra points (11 of 14), including one blocked, a year after he converted 33 of 34 for the Saints. Played two outdoor games, in Jacksonville and Green Bay, and converted 6 of 6 field goal attempts while missing 2 of 4 extra points. The Vikings’ kickoff coverage improved slightly under Forbath with an average return of 25.4 yards, down from 26.1 yards with Walsh. Opponents’ average start off kickoffs (24.6-yard line) ranked 13th in the league, per Football Outsiders. Under contract and expected to compete for the starting job this summer. Turns 30 in September.
Kevin McDermott (3.5): Signed a four-year, $4 million extension this summer, a year after edging longtime incumbent Cullen Loeffler for the job. The 27-year-old long snapper found a groove on his third team in his fourth NFL season. Appeared in all 16 games without any game-altering mistakes. Had one tackle. Not penalized.
Jeff Locke (2.5): Still too inconsistent for the Vikings in his fourth NFL season, the final of his rookie contract. Showed improvement Priefer sought in his drops and booted the first two 70-yard punts of his NFL career, one in Chicago and another vs. Arizona. Though a 62-yard bomb, downed by Marcus Sherels to set up Danielle Hunter’s safety in Carolina, only came after a 34-yard clunker to midfield on the previous drive. Kicked away 74 punts and improved both his average (42.6) and his net average (39) from a season ago. Though he still ranked 29th and 25th among qualified punters in those categories, respectively. Showed better control and some reliable gunners as a career-best 34 punts were downed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, tied for fifth in the league. Three touchbacks also tied a career best. Had a three-yard punt vs. the Packers partially blocked. Otherwise had a strong game in the Week 2 win, including five of his seven attempts downed inside the 20-yard line. Worst outing came inside U.S. Bank Stadium against the Cowboys with four bad punts for 16, 25, 32 and 33 yards. The latter set up Dak Prescott at his own 46-yard line, from where the Cowboys would start a field goal drive for the 17-9 lead. A pending free agent.
Marshall Koehn (N/A): One of the six kickers to try out for the Vikings in the search to replace Walsh. The ex-Hawkeyes kicker signed a reserve/future contract at the end of the season and is expected to compete with Forbath this summer.
Taylor Symmank (N/A): The former Texas Tech punter tried out for the Vikings this spring and got a call again when he inked a reserve/future deal at the end of the season. Currently the only punter under contract for 2017.