Jamarca Sanford’s days as a starting safety may be numbered. Ideally, the Vikings hope to slide Sanford back into a reserve role. And the ascension of rookie Harrison Smith will likely trigger that move before the preseason is finished. But don’t underestimate Sanford’s big picture value as a special teams contributor.
Special teams coach Mike Priefer spoke up Thursday to deliver his endorsement, commending Sanford’s speed, toughness and ability to use his hands well. Sanford’s hyperactive nature: also a plus.
“He’s almost as crazy as I am,” Priefer said. “I think you have to have a couple screws loose when you play special teams … He’s got great heart. He’s got great want-to. I wish I had 10 of him.”
Priefer’s praise came a day after head coach Leslie Frazier delivered an assessment of Sanford’s skills. Frazier hinted that Sanford’s grip on a starting safety spot may be tenuous, noting that the fourth-year veteran hasn’t made enough plays on balls down the field. But Frazier also said Sanford’s energy level and effort are “off the charts” and highlighted the value of his abilities on special teams.
“He’s one of those guys who goes 100 miles per hour,” Frazier said. “So there is never time where he takes any time off. And if you are an opposing special teams player and you are trying to get your breath, look out. Because Jamarca will rock you now.”
Return on investment
Competition for the Vikings’ punt returner job remains open right now. So while Marcus Sherels is the incumbent and will be the No. 1 return man heading into next week’s preseason game in San Francisco, the Vikings will also give rookies Jarius Wright and Josh Robinson a look with Bryan Walters in the mix as well.
Given that Sherels and Walters face an uphill battle to make the roster and Robinson has missed most of training camp practice so far with a pulled hamstring, Wright may have the inside track on the job.
Last season, as a senior at Arkansas, Wright didn’t return punts. For his college career, he averaged 5.9 yards on eight returns.
Out with the old, in with the new
Priefer acknowledged Thursday morning that the May release of veteran kicker Ryan Longwell was a move he encouraged General Manager Rick Spielman to make. Last season, in his first year as Vikings’ special teams coach, Priefer watched Longwell make 22 of 28 field goal attempts. That 79 percent accuracy was Longwell’s third worst in 15 seasons. More troubling: Longwell only forced touchbacks on 19 of his 77 kickoffs. The Vikings’ ranked 20th in kickoff coverage last season, allowing opponents an average of 25.6 yards per return.
“It was a tough deal because he’s been a great kicker in this league for a long time,” Priefer said of Longwell’s release. “I just thought for the future of this team kickoff-wise and even field goal-wise, I thought it was the best move.”
With rookie Blair Walsh showing off his leg strength so far in camp, the Vikings are expecting many more touchbacks in 2012. For what it’s worth, last season at Georgia, Walsh had 19 touchbacks on 68 kickoffs.