The Vikings Should Use Free Agency to Fix Their Return Issues

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The Vikings’ 2020 special teams unit was abysmal, ranking 31st overall. Rookie K.J. Osborn and Chad Beebe split punt return duties this season and frequently muffed punts and fumbled the ball.

Minnesota’s longest punt return was 13 yards, which came in a meaningless Week 17 game against the Detroit Lions. They averaged a paltry 4.3 yards per return. As a result, the Vikings’ offense had the worst average starting field position in the NFL, something new special teams coordinator Ryan Ficken needs to fix this offseason.

Here are a few of the free-agent options:

Pharoh Cooper

Cooper was average last year with the Carolina Panthers, but his 2017 Pro Bowl season with the Los Angeles Rams gives hope that he could return to form. In 2017, he had 32 punt returns for 399 yards, tallying 12.5 yards a return.

Cooper also had 932 kick return yards and a touchdown. Last year in Carolina he had 20 punt returns for 117 yards and 18 kick returns for 430 yards. Cooper would be a low-risk, economic signing, and he would give them flexibility at both returner spots, freeing up extra space on the roster.

Ray-Ray McCloud

McCloud was fourth in the NFL in punt return yards this season, with 298 yards on 29 returns in addition to his 646 yards on 28 kickoff returns. His kick-returning ability would allow him to replace impending free agent Ameer Abdullah, and his average punt return (10.2 yards) is more than double the Vikings’ last season.

He also proved to be a capable depth receiver, catching 20 of 22 passes for 77 yards last year, meaning that through one low-cost signing, Minnesota could fix almost all of their return issues and add a viable secondary wideout.

Jaydon Mickens

Mickens’ stats may not blow you away, but his impact was substantial for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their championship run. Teams would often punt away from Mickens due to his electrifying speed, and he finished the year with 16 punt returns for 99 yards and 13 kick returns for 340 yards.

Mickens, like Cooper, is a low-risk signing who could help a special teams unit that struggles with turning the ball over. He’s also an affordable option for a team projected to be $12 million over the cap.

Dwayne Harris

Although Harris, 33, is on the wrong side of 30, he provides stability at the position, having averaged 9.9 yards per return. In his 10 seasons in the NFL, Harris only has one muffed punt and has returned three for touchdowns.

Even though he has lost a step with age and doesn’t provide any meaningful offensive impact, his average yards per punt return last season (8.1) was almost double the Vikings’. Harris likely won’t command much money on the open market, and the Vikings could bring him into training camp in a veteran-minimum deal.

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