Can Kene Nwangwu Give a Repeat Performance Against the Chargers?

Credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

On Nov. 20, 2016, the Minnesota Vikings were in the middle of a tightly contested matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. Minnesota only led by a field goal to start the second half as Chandler Catanzaro was set to kick the ball out of the back of the end zone for a touchback. Catanzaro’s kick fell short, allowing Cordarrelle Patterson to make a break for it. Patterson immediately found a gaping hole to his right, got a block from Zach Line, and outran Arizona’s special teams unit for a 104-yard kick-return touchdown.

Last week against the Baltimore Ravens, the Vikings ended a five-year scoring drought on special teams. Kene Nwangwu did his best Cordarrelle Patterson impersonation by running right through the middle of a flock of Ravens defenders before scoring a 98-yard kick-return touchdown to begin the second half.

Given that the Vikings’ special teams unit has built a reputation of being downright panic attack-inducing, it’s fair to say a good chunk of the fanbase expects the worst from them. So it may come as a surprise that Minnesota has a good chance of replicating the rare success they had on special teams last week at Baltimore.

This week, the Vikings will get to travel to their timeshare in SoCal. They will face a surprisingly competent Los Angeles Chargers team. The Chargers have the league’s most electric offense (pun intended) and a defense that is just good enough to not give up more points than the offense is scoring. Yet LA has a glaring weakness that Minnesota has been very familiar with in past seasons — special teams play.

The Chargers have one of the league’s lowest-graded special teams units, per PFF. Some blame can be directed towards Tristan Vizcaino, who only made two-thirds of the extra points he attempted. He was cut in favor of Dustin Hopkins two weeks ago, but LA’s familiar kicking woes haven’t been the only thing holding the team back.

One of the main reasons the Chargers have been so bad on special teams is poor punt coverage. They do not have enough impact players on special teams, with most players’ grades hovering somewhere in the low 60s. Case in point, Los Angeles gives up 12 yards per punt return on average, which is among the worst in the league. Opposing returners love making a run for it against the LA’s special teams unit, as teams return punts at the second-highest rate in the league. There have only been two instances of an opponent calling a fair catch. That’s not good.

Punter Ty Long’s performance has also been an issue. Sure, he’s top 10 in YPA, but that comes at the cost of good hang time. Long averages 4.19 seconds of hangtime, 29th in the league. He also only has seven punts that pinned the opponent inside the 20-yard line. That’s below league average, with most punters having closer to 11 punts downed inside the 20.

The Chargers will target Minnesota’s injury-riddled secondary and hope the Vikings stick with its conservative approach to play-calling on offense. The Vikings must take advantage of a weak Los Angeles special teams unit. Getting an average of 12 yards on each punt return could be the difference between a scoreless drive and a field goal for Minnesota, and games have often been decided on a three-point margin for the Vikings.

Dede Westbrook has had the most snaps on punt returns for Minnesota, and the results have been uninspiring to date. He has averaged 4.3 yards per return, and his longest return of the season is just 15 yards. That’s not going to cut it, even against a bad special teams unit.

The Vikings need a boost to their punt-return game, and Nwangwu is an athletic freak of nature. He finished with elite or above-average scores for his position at every test, his most impressive being the 40-yard dash, where he ran a 4.32. Nwangwu was only below-average in certain measurables like arm length.

Nwangwu has a more impressive physical profile than Patterson in terms of raw athleticism upon entering the NFL draft. Of course, Patterson was a first-round prospect, whereas Nwangwu got drafted in the fifth round. It wouldn’t be fair to have the same expectations. However, Nwangwu can become a consistent threat on special teams that opponents have to look out for.

This week’s matchup against a struggling Chargers special teams unit is an excellent opportunity for Nwangwu to prove that he deserves to be the full-time return man on both kick returns and punt returns.

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