Finding a punt returner hasn’t been an issue for the Minnesota Vikings since homegrown talent Marcus Sherels took over the gig in 2011.
Over the past decade the rock-solid Sherels set team marks in punt returns (237), punt return yards (2,480) and punt return touchdowns (5) while averaging 10.5 yards per return; no Viking with more than 50 career returns has averaged better.
Including his 173 fair catches, Sherels handled 410 regular-season punts with only two lost fumbles. So it was a bit jarring to see him put the ball on the ground twice in the Vikings’ playoff loss to San Francisco.
That he was even on the field is a testament to his perseverance and his value to the Vikings. The former Rochester John Marshall standout, University of Minnesota walk-on and undrafted NFL free agent signed with the Saints in March of 2019 before being released prior to the season. He re-signed with the Vikings, then was released and landed in Miami for a stretch before being cut there and returning to Minnesota to close out the campaign.
Vikings special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf certainly wasn’t expecting Sherels to be his punt returner last year, and Sherels’ career-low 4.7 yards per return last year fails to make a case for attempting to wring one more season out of his NFL career.
So replacing Sherels sits atop the Vikings’ special teams priority list heading into the 2020 season.
Unfortunately fans won’t get to see any sort of training camp battle for punt return duties or weigh in on preseason punt return star turns and missteps. The competition to fill Sherels’ shoes will instead play out on the TCO practice field, with results to be unveiled when the Vikings open the regular season in September.
DO PUNT RETURNS EVEN MATTER TO THE VIKINGS?
Last season the Vikings’ average field position following a punt was their own 22.5 yard line—24th in the NFL and their worst post-punt starting field position this millennium. In fact, it was a huge turn of events for the Vikings. Minnesota ranked in the top five in this stat category three of the last four years, starting outside the 26-yard line each of those four seasons.
Surely it was a drive-killer, right? How can you bounce back from such a handicap?
Instead of curling into the fetal position in the shadow of their own goal posts, the Vikings instead put up their most points in a decade. They averaged better than two points per drive (2.21) for just the third time in the last 15 years. So starting an extra four yards back was hardly a deterrent in 2019, and it’s unlikely to be one going forward.
Historically the Vikings also seem content with finding their punt returner deep down their depth chart. Since 2011, only 24 of the team’s 278 punt returns have been handled by drafted players — 16 by Mike Hughes, six by Stefon Diggs and one each by Cordarrelle Patterson and Olabisi Johnson.
With the Vikings wafer-thin on experience at cornerback, using Hughes in the return game will preferably be a last resort, allowing him to focus on his defensive duties. And that sets up a competition amongst fringe wide receivers looking for a way to crack the roster.
NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY?
Sherels arrived in Vikings camp with 17 college punt returns to his credit — hardly a number that’s going to stand out on a resume.
Among the NFL’s top 10 punt returners by average per return last year, only three brought more college experience returning punts to the professional level. Nyheim Hines, who returned two punts for touchdowns and averaged 31.2 yards per return last year, had 11 college punt returns. Diontae Johnson, the punt return average runner-up at 12.4 yards per return, matched Sherels’ 17.
That means you don’t have to rule out rookies Justin Jefferson (two college punt returns), Quartney Davis (one) or Dan Chisena (zero — did Penn State not want the world’s fastest man handling the ball in the open field?).
In fact, Maalouf has indicated Jefferson is in the mix for the gig, along with Hughes. But again, both seem more valuable to the starting offense and defense, respectively.
Which brings us to fifth-round pick K.J. Osborn. In a receiver-rich draft, with the Vikings thin at the position, Osborn seemed an odd selection given some of the talent left on the board when he was tabbed by the Vikings 176th overall.
But the Vikings weren’t necessarily drafting Osborn to replace Diggs in the offensive game plan; Maalouf had something different in mind. Osborn ranked fifth in the NCAA BCS at 15.9 yards per punt return last year, and for his career collected 594 yards on 49 returns. You have to believe Maalouf’s voice carried loudly when the Vikings went on the clock in the fifth round.
“I think people sometimes look for athletic guys, but you have to be able to catch the ball, and he’s done both in college and done it very well,” Maalouf said in a published report. “You can see his explosiveness and his vision and his anticipation before he catches the ball, you can see his eyes scanning. He has the talent to do that.”
Maalouf noted that the Vikings could use more than one returner, so it may not be an Osborn-or-nothing situation. But the ramp-up to the 2020 campaign won’t include preseason opportunities, so having a trustworthy pair of hands fielding punts is the place to start. With Sherels out of the picture, Osborn looks to be the next man up.
The Vikings demonstrated last year that they can survive just fine with middle-of-the-pack returns in the punt game. Osborn offers the potential for an uptick from that, with the safety net of the ability to catch the ball and not dig the Vikings a hole. With the absence of a preseason punt return home run to stoke the fan base, that’s a solid way to enter the season.