The Minnesota Vikings finished with a mediocre 7-9 record last year, but they did so on the back of one of the better offenses in the NFL, ranking top-10 if not top-five in most categories. The front office noticed the lack of veterans on defense and addressed it by signing or drafting 16 new players.
It now seems as if the Vikings will walk into next year with one of the better offenses and defenses in football. However, special teams remain an uncertainty.
Minnesota is notorious for its issues at the kicking position, whether it’s guys whiffing on routine kicks or missing game-winners in the playoffs. Vikings fans needn’t be reminded of Gary Anderson‘s heartbreaker in 1999 after nailing every single kick in the regular season, or Blair Walsh‘s shank in the 2015 Wild Card game. So we won’t remind you.
In 2018, fifth-round pick Daniel Carlson missed three field goals in a road tie against the Green Bay Packers — a game that eventually cost the Vikings a playoff spot. Now Carlson is setting franchise records for the Las Vegas Raiders, making 94% of his field goals. Hell, their last kicker, Dan Bailey, held the best field goal percentage in NFL history before arriving in Minnesota.
This season, the Vikings’ roster includes two kickers: Greg Joseph and Riley Patterson. One is a rookie and the other has played in 16 games in his NFL career. The lack of experience here is glaring. Knowing the Vikings, it may shoot them in the foot.
And it’s not just kicking. Over the last two seasons, Minnesota’s special-teams coverage units just seem to be getting worse. Last year, they touted the seventh-worst special teams unit in NFL history. Funny enough, this wasn’t even the worst in the league. The Los Angeles Chargers had the third-worst special teams unit in the history of the league. It seems like anything the Vikings do poorly, the Chargers do worse.
The Vikings were 9.4% worse than the average NFL team per special teams DVOA, 31st in the league. They had the worst field goal and extra point DVOA, 15.5% worse than the average NFL team. They also had the second-to-worst kickoff, punt, and punt return DVOAs.
Basically, they were bad all across the board. The Vikings realized this and let go of former special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf before promoting Ryan Ficken, who was already on the special teams staff.
They also spent draft picks to help their return game (or lack thereof) with the selections of RB Kene Nwangwu and WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette. It’s safe to say that K.J. Osborn hasn’t worked out on special teams after he had multiple fumbles, struggled to field punts, and had absolutely zero wiggle to his returning skills.
On the flip side, Nwangu ranked third all-time in Big 12 kick-return yards. He displayed explosiveness, burst, and speed that the Vikings haven’t had. Nwangwu posted the highest Relative Athletic Score for running backs in the 2020 draft class and runs a 4.29 40-yard dash.
It has been suggested that Ihmir Smith-Marsette has the inside track to earn the third wide receiver job. But until then, he adds to the Vikings’ special teams unit too. Smith-Marsette finished his college career ranking second in kick-return yards in Big 10 history.
Although the Vikings do not have a kicker with experience, they have attempted to make the special teams unit better — it’s hard to get much worse than it was last year. Luckily for them, their special teams strength of schedule is slightly easier this year.
According to Sharp Football, the Vikings have the 10th-hardest schedule in the league in terms of their opponents’ special teams efficiency, but it’s a slightly easier endeavor if you look at last year’s ranks. The average rank of this year’s forecast is 16.8 while the average rank of the 2020 schedule was 15.3. Of course, these numbers are volatile.
The Vikings’ special teams are still a huge question mark. The team lives and dies based on how its kicker woke up feeling, and there is no guarantee how rookies will perform. But they recognized their shortcomings and blew up last year’s unit, which is a good start.