There was a time when the annual exercise of figuring out who would bump undrafted free agent Marcus Sherels off the Vikings’ roster was a rite of training camp.
Sherels, the thinking went, was too short, too one-dimensional and simply too expendable to keep on the roster. The annual bit of training camp punditry started in the Leslie Frazier era and continued in the Mike Zimmer era. But as Sherels went from roster afterthought to the Vikings’ all-time leading punt returner and one of the longest-tenured players on the roster, keen observers stopped assuming there would be any way he wouldn’t make the team.
The game might not be worth playing again this summer, after Sherels worked as both the Vikings’ kick and punt returner last year and signed a one-year contract — his eighth deal in as many years with the team — in March. But like a tired Hollywood franchise, it’s back for one more sequel this summer — and this time, there’s an adversary that might actually be worth watching.
Mike Hughes, the Vikings’ first-round pick, remains in his early studies of the team’s defense, going through a process that coach Mike Zimmer typically prefers not to rush with his young corners. Zimmer spent much of his first summer as Vikings coach in the ear of Xavier Rhodes, and brought Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander along slowly in their first years, so there’s no reason to think Hughes will be ushered hastily into a big defensive role. He only played two seasons of major college football, and though the Vikings gave Alexander most of the work as their top nickel corner this spring, they still have Terence Newman on the roster in case they need another option in the slot and want to bring Hughes along slowly.
But even if Hughes isn’t a major factor in the defense in 2018, he’s still going to be on the roster. He returned two kickoffs and a punt for touchdowns at Central Florida last year, and spent most of the spring splitting time with Sherels at both returns spots.
“The kickoffs, he’s very natural catching the ball,” special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. “Obviously, it’s a much easier ball to catch than end-over-end-type kicks. Punts, he’s come a long way since rookie minicamp. He’s never really been taught how to track a punt, how to catch a punt. We do a lot of film work, a lot of close-up film work that we go over with Mike, and all our returners for that matter, to try to hone those skills. He’s done a really nice job. He’s come a long way. He’s a great athlete, a fast learner, the sky is the limit for Mike. I think he’s going to be a very good returner on both punts and kickoffs.”
The Vikings figure to have four corners on the roster (Hughes, Waynes, Rhodes and Alexander) on whom they spent either a first- or second-round pick. Newman has no guaranteed money in his contract, but his immersive knowledge of the Vikings’ defense and his history with Zimmer — coupled with the fact he only counts for $720,000 against the cap on a minimum salary benefit — still make him valuable at age 40.
That’s five corners already, and the Vikings liked Texas rookie free agent Holton Hill enough to guarantee him $75,000, which is more guaranteed money than they’ve given to any undrafted free agent in Zimmer’s time as the head coach. It stands to reason, then, that Hill has a good chance to make the roster. The Vikings could keep one fewer safety, if they think Newman (who worked at the spot during minicamp) gives them another option there, but in any case, they’ve got a crowded room of defensive backs.
Sherels has played 45 snaps on defense in Zimmer’s four years as head coach, and it’s no secret the Vikings think of him mostly as a return man at this point. The difference this year is, they’ll have another player on the roster in Hughes who’s effectively guaranteed a spot and could be good enough to take at least one of the return jobs as a rookie.
Essentially, the decision the Vikings will have to make is this: Can they afford to carry Sherels, in a role that amounts to a fourth specialist, on a roster where they’ve already got five (and possibly six) corners? They’re likely to carry three QBs, given the investments they’ve made in Kyle Sloter already, and figure to want a third running back with Dalvin Cook still returning from a torn ACL. Roster spots start to get claimed quickly in training camp, and as Sherels turns 31 in September, the Vikings will have to determine whether they’ve got enough to go around to keep him.
The Rochester native still enjoys a deep level of trust from Priefer, and is the type of player the Vikings love to boast about: a local product whose commitment to solid technique and on-field consistency are matched by few on the roster. It’s still eminently possible they’ll make the math work to keep him on the roster and render the training camp parlor game useless once again. With Hughes on the roster this year, though, the path for Sherels could be a little trickier than it’s been in a while.