Special teams play was a major issue for the Minnesota Vikings last year. They finished 31st in special teams DVOA, barely beating out the Los Angeles Chargers as the missed kicks and poor coverage piled up.
They fired special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf and will likely overhaul most of the unit this offseason. Beefing up this shoddy group will take more than a little tinkering, but there’s one potential solution in this year’s draft who could also add value on offense: Dazz Newsome could be the answer to the teams’ punt-return woes while also challenging for the third wide receiver spot.
Rookie K.J. Osborn and Chad Beebe split punt-return duties last year, and neither of them made a solid claim to the position. Beebe averaged 4.7 yards per return while Osborn averaged 3.9, and neither player was able to reliably hang on to the football. Osborn’s longest return was 13 yards, which came in Minnesota’s meaningless Week 17 game against the Detroit Lions.
The Vikings used a fifth-round pick on Osborn specifically to be a return specialist; it’s time to cut their losses.
At the University of North Carolina, Newsome returned 50 punts for 535 yards, an average of 10.7 yards per return. He only fair caught one punt during his three years in Chapel Hill and had a long runback of 75 yards. He will likely be taken either late on Day 2 or early on Day 3, where the Vikings have stockpiled picks.
The 21-year-old out of Hampton, Va. showcases his burst of speed on returns, accelerating past defenders with ease. While it is nice to have a returner with Newsome’s superior straight-line speed, it’s his ability to make quick cuts, dart past defenders with ease, and slip from their grasp that makes him difficult to bring down.
Forget the 4.59-second 40-yard dash from his pro day. Newsome plays much faster in-game than this raw speed would indicate. He exhibits great vision and awareness and shows his football acumen by taking the correct angles and following the correct blocks to maximize his returns.
Newsome also has upside as a wideout. While he played second fiddle to fellow receiver Dyami Brown at UNC, many believe Newsome potentially has more upside at the next level.
He finished with fewer yards than Brown in 2019 and 2020, but they played vastly different roles in Mack Brown’s offense. While Dyami Brown worked as the deeper threat, Newsome did most of his best work on underneath routes. Newsome excelled after the catch, using his aforementioned speed almost as if he were returning a punt. He’s fearless working in the middle of the field and shows toughness holding on to the ball after taking a big hit.
He can use his speed to separate at the second level and has been a legitimate vertical threat when needed.
He also has a catch radius that is much larger than his 5’11” height would indicate, as well as a propensity for picking up low catches. He tracks the ball over his shoulder very well and uses his speed to become a threat on go routes. He also possesses terrific body control along the sidelines, allowing his quarterback to throw the ball into tighter windows.
Newsome lined up primarily in the slot during his two seasons at UNC, so the main concern about his potential in the NFL is that he will primarily be confined to the same position. His inability to win outside would limit both Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson, who like to work out of the slot to capitalize on their physical advantages against smaller slot corners.
But both Osborn and Beebe may be pushed off the roster if the Vikings draft Newsome, which would have the added benefit of opening up another roster spot to help with an area of need, potentially along the offensive or defensive line.