Punters, kicks and long snappers are people too.
For the most part, it’s the same faces from last year on special teams for the Vikings. There’s plenty of room for improvement, however, as special teams coordinator Mike Priefer has made that clear so far during the offseason. He’s trying to convert the same tough mentality on special teams that head coach Mike Zimmer has established on the entire team.
We wrap up our Vikings training camp preview by analyzing the special teams unit.
SAFE BET STARTER: Blair Walsh, Jeff Locke
The Vikings opted not to bring in competition for Locke despite an inconsistent season. He was a below average punter compared to the rest of the league, finishing 21st in net average (38.7 yards) on 75 punts. Locke’s touchbacks doubled from three to six last year. He clearly has the leg but lacks the control and consistency needed at the position. This is a big year for Locke to put it all together in his third season and help the Vikings flip the field on a weekly basis.
Walsh is in the final year of his rookie deal, and he’s coming off the worst season in his three-year career. He connected on 74.3 percent of his field goals. Walsh missed three field goals inside 40 yards last year after missing just one within that range in his first two seasons.
Granted Walsh and Locke had to adapt to playing outdoors but so did the visiting teams. They both came across some protection issues as well, but the Vikings need Walsh to return to form again this year.
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: It’s unknown at this point who will be the starting punt returner. Marcus Sherels has been returning punts for the last four years, but rookie wide receiver Stefon Diggs is an intriguing option. Sherels, who will be fighting for a roster spot (though history shows to never count Sherels out before training camp), finished sixth in the NFL last year averaging 11 yards per punt return. He was second in 2013 in that stat averaging 15.2 yards per return. Diggs is a dynamic athlete that returned kicks and punts at some point during his career at Maryland. He is dangerous in space as a receiver and can bring that same threat returning punts this season.
THE BURNING QUESTION: Will long snapper Cullen Loeffler, who has spent his entire 11-year career with the Vikings, make the team this year? Loeffler was the least accurate long snapper last year, according to Pro Football Focus, and the Vikings signed Kevin McDermott during the offseason to compete for the starting job. McDermott, in his third season, was teammates with Locke at UCLA and has played for the Ravens and 49ers over the last two years.