The Vikings coaching staff and front office are in the process of fully evaluating their roster as they plan for the opening of free agency in March as well as April’s NFL Draft. As General Manager Rick Spielman, head coach Leslie Frazier and their respective staffs put their heads together, the Access Vikings team is doing the same. We are in the middle of delivering snapshot evaluations of every position group. Today, we look at the specialists.
Get excited: The Vikings have the best place-kicker in football and he just turned 23 three weeks ago. Now, kicking is a crazy, unpredictable facet of football (see: D. Akers 2011 vs. D. Akers 2012), but there’s nothing to suggest that Blair Walsh won’t be confidently kicking footballs as a Viking for the next 10-15 years.
Last year’s sixth-round draft pick made the Pro Bowl and, more impressively, was a runaway winner in All-Pro voting as he shattered numerous rookie, team and league kicking records during a season that was better than anyone, including Walsh, imagined. The kid made 35 of 38 regular-season field goals, set the NFL record for most 50-yard field goals (going 10 for 10) and bombed a team-record 53 kickoff touchbacks.
Walsh was clutch from the second he kicked the game-tying 55-yarder as the fourth quarter expired against Jacksonville in Week 1. Fittingly, he finished the regular season by kicking a last-second 29-yarder to beat the Packers and clinch a playoff berth. Walsh also made his only post-season attempt a week later at Green Bay, so his final total was 36 of 39, or 92.3 percent. When a leg that big can also make 92.3 percent, well, that’s something special.
Vikings fans also should be excited to have Mike Priefer as special teams coach. Respect for his teaching skills, schemes and presence is gaining momentum around the league. That’s why the Bears interviewed him for their head coaching job.
One of the reasons the Vikings took a chance on Walsh was their faith in Priefer. It was Priefer who made the difficult call and suggested it was time to replace Ryan Longwell, a popular and accurate long-time veteran kicker. And it was Priefer who helped Walsh go from a 60-percent kicker as a senior at Georgia to the NFL’s best place-kicker just a year later.
Keep an eye on: No one outside of Winter Park saw Ryan Longwell being replaced a year ago at this time. No one outside of Winter Park even thought Longwell needed to be replaced at this time a year ago. So it’s best to keep your eyes open as 31-year-old punter Chris Kluwe enters his ninth season.
That’s not a suggestion that Kluwe needs to be replaced. In fact, the feeling here is the complete opposite.
Although some fans, reporters and even Priefer grew exhausted by Kluwe’s over-exposed persona, the dude can still punt better than anyone else has in team history. He had a few uncharacteristic hiccups and shanks, but, remember, he also had a bit of a bum left knee, which required post-season surgery to repair the meniscus.
Something else critics should remember: His net average (39.7) was a career high. His gross (45.0) was third highest in his career. And not to be overlooked is the roles that he and long snapper Cullen Loeffler played in Walsh’s success.
Kluwe’s outspoken, Twitter-crazed nature suggests there always will be a cause for which he will feel the need to draw attention. But that’s manageable. There are enough hours in the day to do all the necessary things that go into being a good punter and still have about 20 hours left to eat, sleep, play video games and have a life while fighting for gay marriage rights, Ray Guy’s Hall of Fame credentials or who knows what else is around the next corner.
Reason for worry: The kick and punt return positions aren’t necessarily a worry. In fact, Marcus Sherels provides the opposite of worry. He’s a comfortable fallback plan at both spots. Having him is having a sense of relief that the ball isn’t going to pop loose near the goal line on a kickoff or hit the ground and roll 25 more yards on a punt.
However, the cost of that comfort is a low percentage of big plays in the return game. They aren’t impossible, of course. The guy did return a punt 77 yards for a touchdown at Detroit. But he’s never going to be a threat like Percy Harvin.
Harvin is the one to worry about here. He’s one of the best kick returners in the league. It would be a shame to deny the team the benefits of that incredible talent, but it’s something the coaches and front office will no doubt worry more about now that they’ve seen Harvin’s health last only nine games.
Harvin wasn’t injured on a kickoff return. But the wear and tear of extra touches – particularly ones that come on the most violent play in football – can’t be dismissed when the guy taking the beating is the second-best player on the team.
Replacing Harvin on kickoffs would be much easier if the Vikings found an electric game-breaker to replace him. Even better would be a replacement who also excelled at punt returns.
What are the chances of that happening when there are so many other needs with higher priority status? Not great. After all, the Vikings have a young, comfortable Plan B.
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