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 special teams coach Mike Priefer has no trouble saying it. Percy Harvin is the team’s No. 1 kick returner. That was clear Saturday morning when Harvin went through the morning walk-through on the first unit kickoff return team. And it was clear when Priefer met with reporters afterward.
“Come Week 1, if he's ready to roll, we're ready to have him back there,” Priefer said. “Absolutely."
If only it were that simple. Harvin returned 16 kickoffs last season, averaging 32.5 yards per return. He returned the season’s opening kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown and also had a 104-yard return in Atlanta in Week 12 that finished at the 3 yard line. But as the season moved on and Harvin was dealing with nagging rib and shoulder injuries, the coaching staff was much more cautious about using him extensively on kickoff returns, not wanting to endanger a playmaker they also count heavily on on offense. In the four games Adrian Peterson missed, Harvin only returned two kicks.
That’s why it will be interesting to monitor how the fourth-year speedster is used early this season as Peterson’s return to health is also watched closely.
"I think we're going to have a good plan with Percy this year," Priefer said. "He is our number one kickoff returner. When we have the opportunity to use him, we're going to use him.”
Other guys in the mix at kick returner right now include rookies Josh Robinson and Jarious Wright, Kerry Taylor and Bryan Walters. For the record, Lorenzo Booker returned 19 kickoffs last season but is now with the Bears. Cornerback Marcus Sherels returned 16 kicks but may be a longshot to make this team.
In other special teams news, both Priefer and head coach Leslie Frazier have made it clear they intend to put significant pressure on rookie kicker Blair Walsh during training camp, trying to get a feel for how he produces under duress.
Said Frazier: “We’re going to have some competitive moments where we really want to get our fans involved and put a little pressure on him.”
Priefer said the push to up the pressure on Walsh is a different tactic than what he would have used had veteran Ryan Longwell still been the team’s kicker.
“Ryan was a proven commodity,” Priefer said. “And Blair needs to prove himself. He knows that.”
Priefer also had this to say about Walsh’s deportment: “Being the only kicker here, he’s putting a lot of pressure on himself to prove himself. He’s a very conscientious young man. He’s a very hard-working kid. This is extremely important to him. And he competes with himself. That’s why I didn’t get another guy into camp. Like I said at mini-camp, I wanted him to get as many reps as he can with [long snapper] Cullen [Loeffler], with [holder] Chris [Kluwe], with our whole first field goal unit to put him in a situation where he can be successful.”
The Vikings report to training camp Thursday and will hold their first full practice Friday afternoon at Minnesota State University in Mankato. That means the first preseason game is now 16 days away with the Sept. 9 regular season opener against Jacksonville kicking off just six-and-a-half weeks from now. As the Access Vikings team gets ready to head to camp, here’s a list of eight under-the-radar players who we’ll be watching closely, guys who could have a significant role in helping turn things around.
George Schwartz, a 25-year-old guard-tackle who played under Vikings offensive line coach Jeff Davidson in Carolina, will visit the Vikings on Monday.
No, it's not a move that's likely to make Peyton Manning change his mind. But, hey, when a team whacks both starting guards like the Vikings did a week ago, it doesn't hurt to take a look at a 6-6, 331-pounder with 32 games and 19 starts under his belt.
Schwartz is likely earmarked for the veteran backup job that Joe Berger held last season. Berger played well as a backup at all three interior positions last year and almost certainly will end up as a starter at one of the guard positions. If the team drafts Matt Kalil third overall, Kalil would play left tackle, while Charlie Johnson probably would slide in to left guard. Berger would be the right guard.
And Schwartz, a seventh-round pick of the Panthers in 2008, would be provide young depth at guard and tackle. And, who knows, he could end up at right tackle if he plays well and Phil Loadholt continues to be inconsistent.
Update: Cedric Griffin has agreed to a one-year deal with the Redskins that could be worth up to $2.5 million, according to his agent. The ex-Vikings cornerback was hampered because of knee injuries the past couple of seasons.
Update II: Former Vikings special teamer Kenny Onatolu is now current Panthers special teamer Kenny Onatolu. NFL.com reported that Onatolu signed a three-year deal. It reunites Onatolu with former Vikings special teams coach and current Panthers special teams coach Brian Murphy.
Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer has faced the challenge of trying to contain Bears return specialist Devin Hester once before. It was Sept. 16, 2007 when Priefer accompanied the Chiefs to Soldier Field in Chicago as the Kansas city special teams coach.
We had a chance to talk to Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer for the first time this week about the new rules changes on kickoffs.
NFL owners recently voted to move kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yard line. Players on the kickoff cover team also can now only line up five yards from the ball, thus limiting their ability to get a running start downfield.
"I’m all for player safety and understand that," said Priefer, who joined coach Leslie Frazier's staff this offseason after coaching Denver's special teams. "I just think anytime you mess with a good thing and that’s kickoff, kickoff return – I think it’s a wonderful part of our game. Obviously I’m the special teams coach, I’m supposed to say that. But I truly believe that’s one of the most exciting plays in our game and I think the changes they made weren’t as drastic as I thought they could have been and I’m pretty pleased about that.
"Kicking off from the 35 will help some of the older kickers obviously. It will help the cover teams but you don’t get the running start. If you have any familiarity with what I did in Denver, I’ve got guys looping and crossing and moving. That kind of takes that part of it away. So it will be interesting to see what happens. There will be more touchbacks obviously. But for player safety I think it was the best thing they could do."
Moving kickoffs up five yards will lead to more touchbacks, which could help extend Ryan Longwell's career. The veteran kicker is a free agent, but Priefer certainly sounded like the team wants Longwell back.
"The great thing about Ryan is he’s a wily veteran," Priefer said. "He has a lot of tricks in his bag. He’s going to have opportunities to place kickoffs where he wants them – higher, shorter, deeper. We’ll be able to be creative and do some different things on kickoff and hopefully every now and then he’ll get us a few touchbacks. I think it will be good for Ryan."
Priefer said he sees advantages and potential disadvantages in the new rules, but he's happy the owners decided not to eliminate the two-man wedge, which was part of the initial proposal.
"They call it a two-man wedge, it’s not a two-man wedge. It’s a double team," he said. "To me, it’s how you present that. I’m glad they didn’t change that. I think you would have a lot of returners who won’t want to return the ball if you don’t have at least a double team back there protecting them. I’m a big believer in a double team or two double teams. I’m glad that didn’t change that part of the rule."
Priefer said eliminating the two-man wedge likely would have caused teams to alter how they set their rosters, especially on game day.
"I think you would have to change your roster a little bit in terms of who you put back there because you would have to put linebackers and maybe tight ends more than offensive linemen and defensive linemen," he said. "You couldn’t use those guys because it would be very difficult to ask a 300-pounder to block a 190-pounder one-on-one in open field. That doesn’t work very well."
Priefer said he's curious to see how the 5-yard rule affects the kickoff team too. It could take the cover guys longer to get downfield without the running start.
"It’s going to be very interesting," he said. "You’re not going to be able to get to full speed as early as you used to. My guys in Denver, we had them full speed by the 30. By the time the ball was kicked, the looping and the crossing and the running start, their rule was to be full speed by the time they hit the restraining line."
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