The Minnesota Vikings’ special teams unit was historically bad last season. Well, a lot of things with the 2020 Vikings were historically bad, but the special teams unit was nearly dead last in every measurable. Marwan Maalouf, Dan Bailey, and Austin Cutting were all relieved of their duties. The returners are back, but we aren’t so sure that is a good thing. And to address this, so far the Vikings have done *checks notes* basically nothing?
Big changes needed to be made after a disaster of a season. The Vikings took swift action in firing players and coaches from that underperforming unit. But as things currently stand, they have an average punter, some underwhelming returners, and a kicker who hasn’t attempted a regular-season field goal since 2018. That doesn’t exactly scream “revamped.” This does not seem to be for lack of trying, though. After signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars, return specialist Jamal Agnew said in an interview with the Pick 6 Podcast that Minnesota was one of the teams who pursued his talents.
So the Vikings are still clearly trying to make some improvements to this group. Phew. Let’s take a look at a few options to add some competition to the kicker and returner spots.
The best kicker available in free agency is, get this, Dan Bailey. Yes, our old friend unfortunately leads the pack here. Along with the elder statesman Stephen Gostkowski, Bailey is the most experienced option. And if it weren’t for last season, he’s the most accurate kicker available. Gostkowski is the ninth-most accurate kicker all-time, and Bailey is 12th. Also, the very available Kai Forbath is hilariously (sickeningly) eighth. The Vikings ruined two of the top twelve most accurate kickers in NFL history. Let that sink in. Oh yeah, and Daniel Carlson has evolved into a top kicker out in Las Vegas. PAIN.
As far as return men go, the options don’t get any more enticing. Agnew said the Vikings were one of his top recruiters, so they are aware of their shortcomings at returner and interested in improving the position. However, most of the top candidates are now signed. Cordarrelle Patterson would be the obvious fan favorite, and he has even openly asked the Vikings to reach out. I would be open to the idea, but you don’t really want him taking the ball out of Dalvin Cook’s hands, so returner would seem to be his only value to the team. Tavon Austin is the other remaining “big name” returner. Austin hasn’t returned kickoffs since 2017, so he would most likely be strictly a punt returner.
Here’s where things get a little more interesting. While the Vikings have had approximately zero percent success drafting kickers, what’s another sixth-round pick? Evan McPherson of Florida and Miami’s Jose Borregales are the two kickers who could get drafted in 2021. McPherson hit 85 percent of his field goal attempts at Florida and only missed one extra point. Borregales, who had an excellent 2020 season, won the Lou Groza Award for the nation’s best kicker. Both are exciting prospects who will probably cost anywhere between a fifth- and a seventh-round pick. Rick Spielman is a little low on those right now, but surely he will work his magic and trade a fourth-round pick for fifteen seventh-rounders at some point in the draft.
There are several intriguing returners available in the draft. Two players could be a good fit on the Vikings, and they are much cheaper and potentially better than the current free-agent options.
Western Michigan’s D’Wayne Eskridge is a wide receiver who returned kicks for the first time this past season. He did not disappoint. Speed kills, and this former track star showed it. He ran a 4.38 at his pro day and claims he could’ve run a 4.29 if the weather had been better. As a receiver, he offers the big-play ability of a poor man’s DeSean Jackson but his ability to return kicks as well offers an added dimension. He is a projected third-round selection.
Dazz Newsome is another option they could snag on Day 3 of the draft. The wide receiver out of North Carolina is a dynamic playmaker. His position in high school was simply “athlete.” His value as a returner is undeniable, and according to PFF, he has the fifth-highest punt return grade in the last three years.
The Vikings have shown interest in improving the special teams unit but have yet to make a significant move. Greg Joseph doesn’t exactly quell any fears about going into the season without a reliable kicker, and another season of Chad Beebe and K.J. Osborn returning balls is not getting anyone out of their seat.
Free agency offers a few options, but the real opportunity might be through the draft. Before Mike Zimmer’s Kicker Killer Program — I mean, training camp starts, the Vikings have many chances to improve the group. Let’s just hope they can put the ball between those two posts when it matters. That’s the goal.