The Minnesota Vikings’ special teams unit has been riddled with issues in past years. From kicking woes to a revolving door at punter and returner, this unit has been one of the bigger weaknesses on the team. Could this finally be the year the Vikings’ special teams turn it all around?
The best place to start has to be with kicker. Kicker and the Vikings go together like toothpaste and orange juice. From Gary Anderson missing the game-winner in the 1998 Championship Game to Blair Walsh shanking the 27-yarder on the frozen turf of TCF Bank Stadium, to Daniel Carlson‘s meltdown at Lambeau Field, the Vikings are notorious for heartbreaking missed field goals.
After the team cut Carlson following Week 2 of his rookie season, they brought in Dan Bailey. Bailey was a shell of his former self in his first season with the Vikings and hit just 75% of his field goals. He was so inconsistent the team traded away a fifth-round pick to get Kaare Vedvik from the Ravens during the 2019 preseason. That turned out to be a major mistake, as he was cut just a few short weeks later. In the span of two seasons, the Vikings blew two draft picks on the kicker position when they probably should’ve just stuck to the options on the free-agent market.
When it comes to punter, the Vikings seem to have a new one just about every season. During the 2017 season, the team was rolling with veteran Ryan Quigley. The following year, Minnesota surprisingly cut him after the final cuts were made, and brought in Matt Wile just a few days before the opening game. Fast forward a year and Wile had something very similar happen to him. He was cut the day after making the final 53-man roster, as the team signed veteran Britton Colquitt, who was released by the Browns. That move made it two seasons in a row where the Vikings’ opening day punter wasn’t on the roster just a week prior.
As far as kick returner goes, the Vikings seem to have a new one every year and sometimes every week, and they’ve yet to find a replacement for the steady Marcus Sherels at punt returner. Just a season ago, the team was trying out a new face about every day in practice.
In the preseason, there was usually a new face back returning kicks and punts. Sometimes it was Ameer Abdullah, sometimes Chad Beebe, and even players like Holton Hill, Bisi Johnson and Dillon Mitchell were given a shot. Beebe ended up as the punt returner but couldn’t hold onto the football. He muffed three punts in two games and would’ve lost the job had he not suffered a season-ending injury. His failure led to the return of Sherels, who at his advanced age, and deteriorating health, wasn’t the type of explosive returner the Vikings and their fans remembered.
The Vikings kicking situation will better this season, and frankly it really doesn’t have a ton of room to improve. Bailey was solid a season ago, hitting 27 of 29 field goals for a 93.1% success rate. The competition with Vedvik in camp last year clearly lit a fire under him, and he suddenly looked like the Bailey of his prime years in Dallas. With the same holder in Colquitt and another year removed from his groin injury, there’s no reason to believe Bailey can’t be just as consistent in 2020. Early word out of camp is that Bailey has been hitting just about every single one of his kicks, and that news is extremely encouraging.
As far as punters go, the Vikings clearly have the right one on the roster. Colquitt was great a season ago, punting the Vikings out of some tough field position on more than one occasion. He averaged 45.2 yards per punt, with a long of 59 and zero touchbacks. Not only was his punting well, but Bailey praised Colquitt for his holding ability and gave him a lot of credit for his solid 2019 season. Colquitt isn’t just a great punter, he seems to be a high character guy who really embraces and loves being in Minnesota. His energy is infectious and seems to have done nothing but give a big positive boost to this unit.
The Vikings return game should also be much improved this season. As mentioned above, the Vikings had a rotation last year before finally settling with Abdullah as the kick returner, but the punt returner situation was never really figured out. They used a fifth-round pick on K.J. Osborn in the 2020 NFL Draft, and they plan on him potentially being both the punt and kick returner. He’s an exciting prospect with great burst and top-end speed. He’s already impressed in camp as a receiver and, hopefully the Vikings are giving him plenty of reps on both punt and kick returns.
He’ll be an upgrade over Sherels due to his age and athletic ability. He will need to get a little experience under his belt, but by Week 4 should be more than settled in. As far as kick returning goes, if he shows consistent ball security that’ll make him better than Abdullah, who had some issues hanging onto the football.
The Vikings coverage on special teams should also be some of the best they’ve seen in years. This team is loaded with players who are made to excel on punt and kick coverage. They have gunners like Kris Boyd and Abdullah, who were really impressive a season ago and should be even better this year. They also have a handful of rookies who could make an impact on this unit. Troy Dye was a fourth-round linebacker who has great speed and tackling ability. He won’t see the field a ton on defense but should make an impact on special teams. The same can be said for sixth-round safety Josh Metellus, and recently signed players like Steven Parker and Hardy Nickerson, should they make the squad.
The Vikings have the same kicker and punter in back to back years for the first time since Walsh and Jeff Locke. That continuity will result in consistency on field goals and punts. They also have an exciting new return man and young players who are made to excel at flying down the field covering kicks and punts. These factors should all result in a much-maligned unit in recent years being very improved in 2020.