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Starting with his rookie season as an undrafted free agent in 2010 – and each year thereafter — Marcus Sherels has defied the odds to make the Minnesota Vikings roster and has gone on to craft a very fine career as, essentially, a special teams exclusive player. The seven-year veteran punt returner signed a two-year, $4 million deal in the offseason, with $1.5 million guaranteed, and enters 2016 with perhaps the highest level of job security in his professional career.
So is there any scenario where Sherels gets bumped from the 53-man roster?
The talents of Sherels as a special teams player have never been questioned. He is as sure-handed as they come as a punt returner. He is technically sound with the way he squares his body to catch the ball. He makes intelligent decisions with regards to fair catching or running the ball out.
He is also stellar as a gunner, and along with Trae Waynes last year, the Vikings held opponents to the second fewest punt return yards in the NFL.
If there are any threats to Sherels’ future, one would be cornerback depth. The Vikings have preferred to keep six cornerbacks in Mike Zimmer’s short tenure, and they have never been deeper at the position than they are now. Xavier Rhodes, Terence Newman, Captain Munnerlyn, Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes are all locks to make the team, likely leaving room for one more body. Sherels’ biggest competition will be Jabari Price, the third-year player who’s had a great offseason, and Melvin White, the former starter in Carolina. That being said, any talent Sherels lacks at corner he makes up for as a special teams weapon – a capability that Price and White don’t possess at nearly the same level. Even though Zimmer dislikes diminutive cornerbacks, he knows that the odds of needing one are slim, so why not make them useful elsewhere? Sherels, for instance, hasn’t been forced to start a game since 2013.
The second threat to the Rochester, Minn., native would be a younger, better version of himself coming along; someone who wouldn’t eat a roster spot simply to be a specialist. Maybe Stefon Diggs?
As Sherels’ backup last preseason, Diggs was spectacular when he got a chance to return punts. The rookie had returns of 62, 37, 29 (twice) and 23 yards in a sample size of just 10 returns. That’s incredible efficiency. Diggs may be the shiftiest player on the Vikings’ roster and is astoundingly good at making the first man miss – a key on punt returns. It would also fit the NFL norm to have your most elusive wide receiver return punts.
That being said, Diggs had some issues in training camp misreading balls on windy days and generally wasn’t as sure-fire from a technical standpoint as Sherels. Then again, he’s had a year to work on that skill and may have improved enough to close the gap on the Vikings’ special teams ace.
At the end of the day, Sherels has 148 career punt returns under his belt, a boatload of equity in the organization and an inexpensive contract. It would take a lot to unseat him, but like many other position battles on the team this summer — where veterans will be forced to prove their mettle to retain spots – Sherels is not wholly immune from a young usurper.
Photo Credit: Kyle Hansen (Cumulus Media)