Next Man Up
Special teams has always been the odd-phase out.
Extra-point bathroom breaks are a weekly routine for many fans, and others even have had the audacity to challenge whether or not kickers and punters qualify as “football players”. It is understandable that special teams phases are typically viewed similarly to a third wheel, as offense and defense provide the vast majority of explosive, highlight-reel plays while the tug-of-war between the two “primary” game phases is perpetually tracked on scoreboards, statistical websites and, of course, social media.
This perception is rooted in a very simple, elementary-level dynamic: Six points will always be more than three, and, correspondingly, field goals will always finish second to touchdowns. Furthermore, attempting field goals, regardless of result, is the football-equivalent of settling for a consolation prize.
The scoreboard may not always directly reflect superior special teams play, but over the course of an entire season, teams that perform well in these phases of the game tend to finish much higher in the standings. The Minnesota Vikings are well aware of this truth and, as a result, have demonstrated that special teams excellence is not just an annual objective but a formal expectation every single season.
Minnesota hired current special teams coordinator Mike Priefer ahead of the 2011 season as part of a coaching overhaul that resolved in Leslie Frazier and Bill Musgrave taking over for head coach Brad Childress and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. Under his tutelage, the Vikings quickly evolved into an annual powerhouse on special teams, ultimately leading to Mike Zimmer retaining Priefer’s services while assembling his staff back in 2014.
His time in Minnesota does include one significant black mark — a three-game suspension stemming from his usage of a homophobic slur during a heated exchange with former punter Chris Kluwe — but Priefer has otherwise been consistently successful while maintaining a professional approach to coordinating the Vikings’ special teams units.
Evaluating special teams performance can be extremely difficult, as much of the information necessary for comparative analysis may only be obtained from the coach in charge of calling the shots. Punting efficiency, for example, is likely to be incorrectly determined on a weekly basis because average distance and hang time are only valuable with context.
Dallas Morning News reporter and NFL Hall-of-Fame voter Rick Gosselin has become the most well-respected source for annual special teams evaluation, creating a composite grading system that attributes a 1-32 ranking and distributes points to each team through 22 separate categories — Kick Returns; Punt Returns; Kickoff Coverage; Punt Coverage; Starting Field Position; Opponent’s Starting Field Position; Punting; Net Punting; Punts Inside the 20-Yard Line; Opponent’s Punting; Opponent’s Net Punting; Total Field Goals; Field Goal Percentage; Opponent’s Field Goal Percentage; Extra-Point Percentage; Total Points Scored; Total Points Allowed; Blocked Kicks; Opponent’s Blocked Kicks; Takeaways; Giveaways and Penalties.
SPECIAL TEAMS RANKINGS DURING MIKE PRIEFER ERA
- 2011: T-18th — 318 Points
- 2012: 1st — 253 Points
- 2013: 17th — 367.5 Points
- 2014: 10th — 320.5 Points
- 2015: 10th — 333 Points
- 2016: 15th — 351 Points
During his six years in Minnesota, Priefer has never allowed the Vikings’ special teams unit to rank in the bottom-third of the league while also turning in three top-10 rankings, including the No. 1 spot in 2012. Field Goal Percentage, Punt Return and Starting Field Position have been consistent strengths for the Vikings over the past half-decade while Punting and Opponent’s Starting Field Position have represented areas in need of improvement.
The most obvious reason for these largely positive results is the abundance of elite special teams performers on Minnesota’s roster during this time frame. Record-setters Cordarrelle Patterson, Percy Harvin, Marcus Sherels, Blair Walsh (yes, him) represent the pinnacle, but fielding consistent open-field tacklers such as Heath Farwell or Michael Mauti have kept the Vikings at or near the top of the league in a handful of the categories evaluated by Gosselin.
As for the year at hand, the 2017 season may prove to be Priefer’s greatest challenge to date. The Vikings have had to replace Patterson, Walsh and punter Jeff Locke in less than a full calendar year, forcing a handful of new, inexperienced starters into the fold at key positions. Jerick McKinnon, Kai Forbath and Ryan Quigley will man these previously-vacated battle stations and have largely impressed through two games with exception to a pair of missed extra points and a couple questionable kick return decisions.
Kicker, punter, kick returner and punt returner are potentially the four spots most critical to success and, subsequently, typically yield the largest groups of well-known specialists. That said, every role on special teams is important, regardless of the high likelihood that the majority of casual NFL fans are incapable of naming their favorite team’s right gunner.
Looking beyond Sherels, Forbath, McKinnon, Quigley and long snapper Kevin McDermott — likely the five most well-known Vikings specialists — Minnesota has plenty of under-the-radar impact players on its roster.
Linebacker Kentrell Brothers and safety Jayron Kearse, who were selected during 5th and 7th rounds, respectively, are inherently valuable to Priefer’s cause, as both second-year special teams studs maintain starting roles on four separate units:
KICK RETURN TEAM
PUNT RETURN TEAM
FIELD GOAL TEAM
FIELD GOAL BLOCK TEAM
Note: Minnesota has not had to employ its “Hands Team” unit yet this season. Players listed above represent likely candidates based on size, athleticism and “soft hands” relative to assigned position. Purely Speculative.
BEST OF THE BUNCH
Brothers, who starts on kickoff, kick return, punt and punt return, has been an outstanding special teams asset for the Vikings since Week 8 of this past season. He recorded nine solo tackles in 10 appearances as a rookie in Priefer’s system, pacing all primary Vikings special teams players in this category.
He did not record a tackle during Minnesota’s opener against the New Orleans Saints — which should not be considered an indictment — but Brothers recorded a Week 2 takedown of Steelers punt returner Eli Rogers, pushing his career special teams tackling total into double digits.
The first special teams tackle of the season for Brothers represents a perfect example of what he brings to the table in punt coverage. Despite inferior athleticism relative to his NFL peers, Brothers gets down the field quickly and efficiently on a consistent basis, sneaking by blockers with optimal pursuit angles to reach the ballcarrier shortly after Quigley’s punt returns to Earth.
Brothers’ instincts, which showed up on almost every play while playing linebacker at Missouri, coupled with geometric angles of pursuit make him an extremely effective in coverage. But, getting within striking distance of the return man is only half the battle — tackling efficiency, specifically in the open-field and/or in one-on-one situations, is what separates the men from the boys.
As the above film clip likely suggests, the former First-Team All-SEC selection is just about as good as it gets at bringing elusive return men to the turf. His wrap-up technique, which, again, showed up consistently during his college career, is borderline flawless, making whiffs and broken tackles extremely rare when No. 40 is involved. Brothers is already a special teams ace, and there may come a time when his greatest special teams strengths resolve in an increased role on the defensive side of the football.
Kearse, similar to Brothers, is featured on kickoff, kick return, punt and punt return for the Vikings this season. He finds himself in a new role this season — and a critically important one at that. The former Clemson standout, like McKinnon, is partially in charge of replacing the departed Patterson.
“The Terminator” or “The Crane“, pick your preference, is the Vikings’ starting left gunner in 2017, an extremely important role that Patterson manned as well as anyone in the league last year. As Priefer has noted in the past, Minnesota likes using a variety of skill sets and sizes at the position, ranging from Everson Griffen all the way to Jamarca Sanford. Kearse, who I have personally confused for an army tank on multiple occasions, is in the mold of Griffen (big, fast, strong), which works well in cahoots with his partner in crime at right gunner, the lightning-quick and experienced Sherels.
He has looked every bit the part through two games in his new special teams role, burning downfield with authority, effectively squeezing return lanes while also making an impact as a tackler as well.
Kearse wasted very little time recording his first solo tackle from the gunner spot, pouncing on the dangerous Ted Ginn Jr. during the second quarter of Minnesota’s opening night victory over New Orleans. Despite being pinned to the sideline for the majority of the play, Kearse rebounded to make an outstanding arm tackle through an optimal pursuit angle and with some help from his octopus-esque arms.
Ginn has a full second to take off with the ball upon securing the Quigley punt, but slight hesitation and outstanding closing speed by Kearse quickly silenced the former Ohio State burner. He doesn’t possess the technical savvy of Brothers, but the Vikings’ final selection of the 2016 draft makes up for his lack of refinement with a truly unparalleled combination of size, strength and athleticism.
There were plenty of question marks surrounding Minnesota’s special teams units entering the 2017 campaign, but thanks largely in part to Brothers and Kearse, the Vikings appear headed toward another top-flight special teams unit — anything less, of course, would be uncharacteristic of a Priefer unit.