The way the Minnesota Vikings handled their special teams a season ago was baffling. They rotated punt and kick returners throughout mini-camps and the preseason. They also were unsettled at kicker and punter until just before the season started. They used multiple returners early in the season, before finally settling on one. Most teams decide who their kick returner will be early in the preseason, so that the player can take the majority of reps in practice. Hopefully, the Vikings learned from last year’s debacle and will name their returner early this preseason once it gets going. Here are some players on the team who will compete for that job.
Ameer Abdullah took the majority of the returns in 2019 and has to be seen as the front-runner for the job. Abdullah is the most experienced kick returner on the Vikings, having done it for Detroit earlier in his career and in past seasons with the Vikings. A season ago, he returned 13 kickoffs in the regular season for 325 yards with a long of 38 yards. He had six more returns in the playoffs that totaled 151 yards with his average staying right around that 25 yards per return mark. While Abdullah is shifty with good burst and overall speed, ball security has been an issue for him with nine fumbles throughout his career. He is a risk to fumble every time he returns a kick, and most Vikings’ fans hold their breath until the play is whistled dead.
Abdullah is currently penciled in as the Vikings kick returner, but he’s no lock to make the final 53-man roster. The Vikings had 15 draft picks this year and a lot of those players look like they can be standouts on special teams. While Abdullah impressed as a gunner in 2019, he could be replaced by a younger and cheaper option. He is the fourth running back on the depth chart, and an average kick returner. While it was encouraging seeing Aduallah embrace his special teams’ role a season ago, his days of wearing purple are very much in jeopardy.
The Vikings surprised many when they used a fifth-round choice on a wide receiver out of Miami named K.J. Osborn. Numerous draft gurus and publications had Osborn being drafted later than the fifth, or not at all, figuring he’d be an undrafted free agent. Rick Spielman apparently had to have him, but the reason is likely not for offense. Osborn is an experienced returner who returned both punts and kicks in his college career. When it comes to kick returns, he had 33 returns for 646 yards in college. His average was just 19.6 yards per return, and he never took one to the house. That’s a hair concerning, but Osborn has good overall speed, running a 4.48 40-yard dash at the combine. He’s extremely shifty and can cover kicks and punts; not just return them. The Vikings clearly took him to be an exclusive special teamer, and he’ll be given every chance in the world to unseat Abdullah.
This could turn out to be an underrated camp battle, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Vikings rotate them during the preseason. As long as Osborn doesn’t look completely lost, or muff a bunch of punts or kicks, he should be able to win the job. If the Vikings can decide on their primary return man after the second preseason game, whoever it is can get the majority of the work, ensuring they are ready to roll in Week 1.
Abdullah and Osborn aren’t the only two players on the Vikings’ roster who have experience returning kicks. Veterans like Mike Hughes, Chad Beebe, Dillon Mitchell and Holton Hill have all done it at times in their careers. Hughes and Hill are too valuable on defense to risk getting injured returning kicks, and Beebe and Mitchell are both long shots to make the final roster, as they are buried on what is suddenly a receiving corps loaded with competition.
The Vikings could look to some other rookies if neither Abdullah or Osborn can emerge in camp. A few youngsters who have returner experience are Brian Cole and undrafted running back Tony Brooks-James. Cole had 16 returns in college for 329 yards with an average just below 21 yards. Brooks-James is actually the most experienced of all the young returners, having returned 44 kicks during his collegiate career, averaging 23.8 yards per return with one touchdown. While both may get a few attempts at returning in camp, they may be shooting for a practice squad spot at best. While it’s reassuring to have plenty of options, the Vikings will likely look to Abdullah or Osborn to be the primary return man and have Hughes and Hill as emergency options if either were to get hurt.