No, the Vikings aren’t bringing in punter competition for Jeff Locke.
At least not yet.
Coming off a down season, numbers wise, the 26-year-old punter has booted away competition through the first four practices of training camp. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer has liked enough of what he’s seen from Locke to not to bring in competition after the Vikings tried out two undrafted punters in May. Locke is entering the final year of his rookie contract this season.
“Went through the spring hoping Jeff would have a good spring and he really did,” Priefer said Monday. “So we decided that we’re just going to go with one right now.
“And I thought he did a lot better job than the numbers say he did. A lot of people have been on him about his numbers, but if you go back and look at it nobody wanted to punt — there’s not one punter I talked to that we played that wanted to punt at TCF with the weather and winds we got there. Jeff really helped us out, did a great job as a holder for us. He’s got to have a good camp here or we’ll end up bringing in competition. But for right now, it’s Jeff.”
On 66 regular-season punts, Locke saw his average dip to a career-low 41.6 yards per attempt, ranking last in the league. His net average also fell to a career low (37.8 yards), though he improved in punts downed inside the 20 (23, up from 21) and touchbacks (five, down from six) for one of the NFL’s best punt coverage units.
Priefer said he’d like to see Locke’s net average surpass 40 yards this season, the first inside U.S. Bank Stadium.
“[Locke] needs to be a much more consistent performer,” Priefer said. “Yesterday he had a couple good punts and a couple punts that weren’t very good. When we punted indoors for three games last year, he only had six or seven punts, but he had outstanding games that helped us with field position.”
Priefer on Blair Walsh moving past his game-losing playoff miss: “He moved beyond back in May when he got back in for workouts. Not that it’s not important to him, he’ll be the first one to tell you that. Blair is a confident guy, but he’s also a prideful and sensitive guy and he knows anytime he goes out there and the play involves points, he has to be productive for us. So I think going forward, his confidence right now is good. He had a great spring. I think he hit 92, 93 percent of 250 field goals he kicked in the spring. He’s the best kickoff guy in the NFL, so just keep being productive. He’s tweaked a couple things this offseason that we’ve worked on together. So hopefully he’ll have a great year for us.”
On specialists getting acclimated to U.S. Bank Stadium: “We sent specialists down there twice during the spring, so they both kicker, punter and snapper had two workouts in minicamp we had back in June. And one of the days all those huge windows were open, I don’t think it had much of an effect. We’ll tell our opponents it will. We’ll tell them we press a button and the wind will blow right in their faces every time they kick a long field goal.”
On the new kickoff return rule moving touchbacks to the 25: “We’re still going to be aggressive even with the new touchback rule. We just have to be smart in when we do that. The new rules, I’m glad they’re still tweaking it, it’s not as dangerous of a play as people think. But we’re going to continue to make it safer. It’s a great, exciting play in our league and I hope we keep it. Got to make it safer for our guys, but the new rule kind of makes you a little bit more of a strategist. Coach Zimmer and I talk before every kickoff and kickoff return to make sure we’re making the right decision strategy wise.”
How do you balance taking chances in the return game? “Beginning of the game, eight yards deep — really good hang time — we don’t want to start out at the 12 if we don’t get a good return. Take a knee and we’ll get the ball at the 25. Down by 10 with five minutes to go, we might tell Cordarrelle: ‘Hey, let’s go,’ because he has the ability to score a 109-yard touchdown. We’re going to pick and choose our spots and be smart with it.”
With Patterson’s injury holding him back, who’s at kick returner? “Marcus [Sherels] will get some looks at kickoff returner. Jerick McKinnon, possibly. Troy Stoudermire came in and has done a nice job for us in the spring and in camp. Adam Thielen can be a kick returner, if need be. Marken Michel is a young free agent and Terrell Sinkfield is also working back there.”