Blair Walsh will be under the microscope this spring and summer after missing the would-be game-winner in the playoff loss to the Seahawks. But he is not the only Vikings specialist who should be scrutinized.
Punter Jeff Locke had another subpar season in 2015. He pinned opponents inside their 20-yard line more often than he did in 2014 and booted one fewer touchback. But for the second straight season, his net punting average dipped. He ranked 30th in the NFL with a 37.8-yard average.
Under special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, the Vikings ask their punters to sacrifice some gross punting yards in order to limit or completely eliminate return yardage. And for the most part, Locke did that.
Only 43.9 percent of his punts were returned, which ranked 14th in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. And opposing returners averaged just 5.2 yards when they did return them, the league’s fifth-stingiest mark.
But still, for a team that so heavily relies on defense and field position to win, they can’t afford to leave so many punting yards on the field.
Locke is trending in the wrong direction there. In 2013, after the Vikings drafted him in the fifth round, he ranked 18th in the NFL with a net punting average of 39.2. In 2014, it dropped to 38.7. In 2015, it was 37.8.
For the sake of comparison, Chris Kluwe — their outspoken and, in their opinion, underperforming former punter — was 17th in the NFL with a net punting average of 39.7 yards in 2012, his final season with the Vikings. However, 56.9 percent of his punts were returned, 29th in the league.
This is not to argue that the Vikings erred in moving on from Kluwe. The point is that they can and should expect better punting performance.
There are no indications that the Vikings plan to move on from Locke this offseason. But they should consider bringing in a young punter to push him, something they chose not to do in each of the past two offseasons.
May the best punter win, and the Vikings would be better off for it.