Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are fine football players, but they’re no Marcus Sherels. And that’s an odd thing to say, as Sherels is a player who seemingly lives on the Minnesota Vikings’ roster bubble each year. But in the context of punt returns, Sherels’ abilities are unmatched.
He’s been with the Vikings since 2010, and in that time, has returned 165 punts for 1,734 yards and five touchdowns, good for 10.5 yards per return. Despite the annual doubts surrounding Sherels’ place on Minnesota’s roster, he’s earned the trust of special teams coordinator Mike Priefer and thus, the endorsement of the team.
Before the 2016 season began — and the Vikings lost meaningful contributor after meaningful contributor — Minnesota brought Sherels back on a new, two-year deal. The diminutive punt returner nearly signed with the New York Jets, but bringing Sherels back was a priority for general manager Rick Spielman. With Minnesota’s playoff window wide open, signing Sherels guaranteed the Vikings a reliable, consistent, and explosive weapon in the underrated area of special teams.
It’s part of the reason Cordarrelle Patterson, long a nonfactor at his natural position of wide receiver, continues to play a critical role for the team on kick returns. Spielman understands that a player’s designated role — cornerback for Sherels — isn’t always the best place to unlock their natural abilities. Patterson and Sherels thrive as returners and positively affect the outcome of games, making them uniquely valuable to Minnesota’s championship aspirations.
And in recent weeks, no player’s lost value has been felt more than Sherels. The Rochester, Minnesota native’s missed three of the past four games with a handful of injuries, putting Diggs and Thielen in the impossible spot of replacing his production. Chris Tomasson did the math, and the results aren’t pretty:
- In the Vikings’ six wins, Sherels returned 14 punts for 216 yards (15.4 yards per return)
- In the Vikings’ six losses, returners turned 15 touches into 64 yards (4.3 yards per return)
Sherels’ 15.4-yard average in those wins is easily the best in the NFL. Combined with his subpar returns in Minnesota’s losses, Sherels’ season average is still fourth-best in the league at 13.4 yards. For all their talents as wide receivers, Diggs and Thielen came nowhere near replicating the magic of a Sherels return, and head coach Mike Zimmer took notice.
“Since Sherels hasn’t been in there, the punt return game hasn’t been as good, so we need to correct those things, stop the penalties,” Zimmer said last week, per Tomasson. Most troubling of all was Thielen’s fumble against the Dallas Cowboys, setting up Dak Prescott and Co. for a late, go-ahead touchdown in Week 13. There’s no knowing if Sherels hangs on in that same situation, but there’s an inherent trust with Sherels lined up deep on every punt return.
Fortunately for the Vikings, it looks as though Sherels will make his long-awaited return to the field on Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Priefer spoke to the media earlier this week, revealing Sherels has been working diligently since hurting his ribs against Arizona in Week 11.
“He’s very much involved in the game plan. He has taken several of the reps in practice. So, we hope to have him on Sunday.”
The hope is more than hope at this point; it’s desperation. The Vikings need Sherels on the field, and his value to the team can’t be overstated. It’s time to dismiss the “roster bubble” talks because Sherels has suddenly become one of Minnesota’s most important players.
But why? What makes Sherels so good, so much better than any of the Vikings’ any other punt return options?
Play No. 1
The Vikings consistently field one of the league’s better kick and punt return units, units that often sets the offense up in positive field position. This year, the Vikings rank second in the league in average starting field position at their own 30-yard line.
Patterson leads the league in yards per kickoff return, and as stated above, Sherels is top-five when returning punts. He’s always helped by sound blocking from the 10 other players on the field, but punt return touchdowns and chunk gains are always the result of two factors — sound technique and special ability.
Where Sherels separates himself is with his special ability. No matter the design — left, right, middle — Sherels has a knack for identifying running lanes, setting up gunners, and exploding through the gap. His short stature is an added benefit, as it makes Sherels an impossible-to-find, moving target behind a wall of blockers.
In the example above, the Vikings run a “Wall Left” return, which is meant to create a lane down the left sideline for Sherels. The Vikings, especially those on the left side of the frame, are quick to reach their landmarks — the numbers, the hashes, and the space between the numbers and the sideline.
This positioning puts the Vikings at an advantage, setting up the coverage defenders for simple seal blocks. Sherels is meant to run around these seal blocks and down the sideline, but things get tricky when coverage defenders outrun Sherels’ blocks. The gunner on the right side of the frame beats two Vikings and nearly meets Sherels at the catch point.
However, this is where things get fun. Sherels appears to see the defender, taking one hard plant and sprinting to his left. He identifies the lane — created by Anthony Harris’s initial seal — and bursts through with instantaneous acceleration. What springs Sherels is a timely block from Emmanuel Lamur, who peels back and obliterates his defender to open the field for Sherels. Thielen finishes the return by embarrassing Carolina’s punter and escorting Sherels to the end zone.
As a returner, Sherels attacks the holes and sets up defenders like a running back. He employs a number of head fakes and stutter steps to freeze coverage defenders, giving him a split second to change direction and break free from arm tackles. He shows an understanding of each and every return concept, exploiting the exact areas defined by the original play call to put punt teams out of place.
Play No. 2
In this example — Sherels’ second touchdown of 2016 — the Vikings appear to run a simple middle return. Houston’s punt carries Sherels to the left of the frame, which actually hurts the Texans. That, combined with Shane Lechler’s monstrous punt, give Sherels the head of steam and time he needs to find the weakness in the coverage.
There’s a fluid nature about punt returns that’s almost impossible to explain or coach. A coordinator will draw up a specific return, but that return almost never plays out as diagrammed. Often times, coverage dictates what happens; if a gunner switches responsibilities or cover men play games at the snap, the return itself must adjust.
These changes happen on the fly, and they’re a testament to a unit’s “football IQ.” Priefer clearly prepares his players for every situation, and that shows in the play above. As soon as Sherels catches the punt, he works back to his “wall,” which is set up in the middle of the field. At the same time, his wall adjusts, with each player following Sherels’ lead in making the original play work as efficiently as possible.
Jayron Kearse, Trae Waynes, Laquon Treadwell, and Audie Cole do their part to spring Sherels loose on the front end of the play, but it’s Edmond Robinson who makes any sort of return possible. He tracks his assignment down the field, keeping an eye on Sherels as he sprints side-by-side with the Texans defender. When Sherels begins his move to the left, Robinson adjusts, putting himself in a position to chip the defender.
Robinson’s chip, a simple nudge of the shoulder, gives Sherels a few inches to plant and cut upfield; an area of the field only Sherels could take advantage of. At the cut point, Treadwell flattens his defender, Cole delivers a timely blow to two defenders, and Kearse creates a natural barrier between Sherels and other threatening Texans.
The rest is history — Sherels makes the punter miss and scores a touchdown, extending the Vikings’ lead in a blowout victory.
It’s not that Sherels is a better athlete or football player than Thielen or Diggs — he’s not. Sherels isn’t even the fifth-best cornerback for the Vikings, but he is far and away the team’s best punt returner. It’s his size, his start-and-stop ability, his decisiveness as a ballcarrier, that set him apart. Some of Sherels’ skills, like subtle head fakes and the ability to “get skinny” through the hole, just can’t be taught.
Even when coverages break down and designed plays change, Sherels and his band of teammates know how to adjust. Like a quarterback and his receivers, or a running back and his offensive line, Sherels and his punt return unit have a chemistry that makes them so dangerous together. Blockers understand Sherels’ habits, and Sherels understands where he needs to be to make the most of his blocking.
He’ll never make it as a cornerback for the Vikings, but Sherels is arguably one of the team’s most valuable players and one of the NFL’s most dangerous punt returners.