Tuesday, August 4, 2015

chris kluwe

Last offseason, the Vikings drafted kicker Blair Walsh which generated collective groans from Vikings fans that felt it was a waste.  About eight days later, after Walsh showed up in good health to the rookie minicamp, the Vikings released long-time kicker Ryan Longwell.  Walsh then went on to have one of the greatest seasons, as a rookie, of any kicker in franchise history.

Fast-forward to this offseason, after the Vikings selected punter Jeff Locke in the fifth round of the Draft, and even the biggest Chris Kluwe supporters has accepted what was going to happen following this year’s rookie minicamp.

The Vikings expectedly released Kluwe.

“So long, Minnesota, and thanks for all the fish!” Kluwe proclaimed on Twitter.  The “fish” reference comes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy book series, which serves as just one more reminder of the culture and humor Kluwe brought to his fans over the years.

“Thank you to all the fans, my teammates, and the Wilf family for the past 8.5 years. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything,” his tweets continued. “And thank you everyone for your support. Remember, one label does not define who you are as a person :)”

Kluwe met with Rick Spielman and Leslie Frazier for about five minutes on Monday, where he was informed of his release, and he was not provided any specifics on the reasoning.  Of course, plenty of attention will be drawn to the fact that the Vikings released the most vocal gay rights advocate in professional sports only days after the NBA had a player announce his sexuality on the national stage and thanking Kluwe by name.

The truth is, however, that Kluwe is on the wrong side of 30 and was owed a sizeable salary for his position.  There is nothing about how Rick Spielman has gone about rebuilding this roster that should suggest Kluwe’s activism had anything to do with his release.  Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, and Cullen Loeffler are currently the only members of the team over the age of 30.  Prominent veterans like Longwell, Antoine Winfield, and Steve Hutchinson have been shown the door in similar fashion under the new management structure.

“Chris has meant a great deal to the Vikings both on and off the field in his eight seasons here,” said Rick Spielman in a statement. He contributed to many victories and we wish Chris and his family the best and thank him for his contributions to the Vikings organization. Out of respect to Chris, we decided to release him now and allow time for him to sign with another team.”

The outspoken punter has plenty of off-field endeavours that include a rock band, a pseudo-professional video game habit, and advocacy efforts for numerous causes.  The one that has drawn the most attention has been his support of equal rights for gay people, but it would be unfair to the Vikings to construe anything they have ever said as a condemnation of his efforts.

Actually, last season’s comments from Mike Priefer are the only thing I can find in terms of a coach being frustrated with Kluwe, and that came after Kluwe had been fined for using his uniform to protest Ray Guy’s exclusion from the Hall of Fame.

“Those distractions are getting old for me, to be quite honest with you,” Priefer said on December 13th. “Do I think Ray Guy deserves to be in the Hall of Fame? Absolutely. But there’s other ways of going about it, in my opinion.”

“To me it’s getting old. He’s got to focus on punting and holding,” Priefer continued.

He was then asked if he had shared these sentiments with Kluwe himself.

“Nah,” said Priefer. “He don’t listen.”

Kluwe then embarked on a Twitter campaign to, essentially, chastise Priefer’s comments over the course of about five months.  He was constantly taking to Twitter to sarcastically let fans know just how focused he was on being focused about focusing.  He is a witty guy, and his point was mostly well-received by his followers, but acting out at an employer publically is typically not going to be a smart move no matter who you are.

I most of the important categories, Kluwe can easily be considered the best punter in franchise history, but the Vikings have good reason for moving on.  A run-first team that is about to play two seasons outdoors, where Kluwe has had his struggles, has to consider field position as one of their highest priorities on every single game day.  Locke represents an upgrade, a cheaper and younger upgrade, and Kluwe’s release is another step in a rebuilding process that has produced plenty of heartbreaking moments for many Vikings fans.

 

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It is widely assumed, and for really good reason, that Vikings punter Chris Kluwe will be released following the fifth round investment the Vikings made in UCLA rookie punter Jeff Locke.

Kluwe was not the first punter shown the door, however, as it was T.J. Conley that was cut before ever even practicing once with the team.  Despite his very brief stay in Minnesota, Conley went out of his way to say some nice things on his way out.

The Vikings waited about eight days after drafting Blair Walsh last year before releasing veteran kicker Ryan Longwell. The move coincided with Walsh showing up to the rookie minicamp healthy, able, and willing.

Rookie minicamp begins at the end of this week and, at that point, the Kluwe watch will be in full force.

In a Draft that seemed about as predictable as the Powerball numbers from this week’s drawing, there was little I felt comfortable declaring as a true prediction.  At the very least, most of my Draft-related predictions came with a transparent lack of conviction that should have been an obvious signal to readers that I was feeling unsure on about every level about how the event would play out.

I made sure to let you know that I felt absolutely no confidence in the final version of my mock draft.  It was for good reason, too.  I ended up matching only one prospect to the correct NFL team in the whole damn thing.  If the Colts hadn’t selected defensive end Bjoern Werner, I would have gotten a big old goose egg on the mock draft front.

Even though I had been predicting for a long time that the Vikings would select linebacker Manti Te’o if he was available, I went out of my way to chastise 1500 ESPN writer Patrick Reusse for making an absurd claim prior to the Draft.

“It is a 100 percent certainty that the Vikings will wind up with Te’o,” wrote Reusse in a column that has been long forgotten by most readers and for which he will never be held accountable for, not that he should be.

Outside of betting Brett ten thousand dollars, at one point, that Dee Milliner would not go to the Jaguars #2 overall (waiting for that check, Brett) I just wasn’t feeling real sure about anything regarding the Draft.  I was always astonished, given the nature of this year’s class, how many people were willing to use absolutes in discussing what was going to happen on Draft Weekend.

There was one thing, however, that should have surprised absolutely nobody.  I had been predicting it with conviction all offseason long and took every opportunity possible to bring it up in talking with Vikings fans.  I was even spouting off about it during all three days of our live Draft Chat this weekend.

I was 100% positively, unequivocally certain the Vikings would replace punter Chris Kluwe in this Draft.

If the Vikings draft Manti Te’o tonight it might not be the only Draft-related move that we’ve been calling for months now.

When profiling punter Ryan Allen, and then later Brad Wing, I outlined all of the various reasons the Vikings might send special teams coordinator Mike Priefer on the road to find a new punter this offseason.  Kluwe’s $1.4 million salary chews up significant space (for a punter) in the last year of his current deal.  He’s getting older and seems to be, at least slightly, regressing.  There is some incredible talent and depth at the punter position available this year.  Priefer also expressed last season that Kluwe’s off-field endeavours have been exhausting.

With the success Priefer had last year in sneaking in some visits with kicker Blair Walsh, who they then selected to replace Ryan Longwell, I felt that the timing made sense to attempt the same type of transition at punter.

And the signs are pointing to that being a very real possibility.

1500 ESPN reports that Priefer conducted at least three private visits with prospective punters prior to tonight.  LSU’s Brad Wing, Arizona State’s Josh Hubner and UCLA’s Jeff Locke have all been worked out privately by Priefer, according to the report.  These visits are unlikely to be a result of anything less than strong interest, because the Vikings already have a “camp leg” in the form of T.J. Conley on the roster.

Kluwe’s job is safe for one more day, but it appears he could be looking for work as soon as Sunday.

[Note:  Want to see a list of every player featured in our “Draft Target” segment?  Click here to visit the Offseason Tracker where there will be a list of all these players.  Check back often as there are plenty more to come!]

If you haven’t guessed by this point in the offseason, yes, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Vikings might proactively look towards the NFL Draft to replace veteran Chris Kluwe before the final year of his contract is played out.  In my profile of Louisiana Tech punter Ryan Allen I talked about Kluwe’s high salary, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer’s comments about Kluwe’s exhaustive off field endeavours  and also just the possibility of finding an upgrade at the position.

Since writing that article I have become even more convinced (keep in mind now, this strictly irresponsible speculation Adam talking, not news reporting Adam) that Kluwe’s cap hit could be reason enough for his early exit.  The team currently has about $4.4 million in cap space, which is not likely to even be enough to sign their entire Draft class, let alone sign a guy like Antoine Winfield to a new contract on top of that.  That means something has to happen, and while Kevin Williams or Jared Allen could still be candidates to change their contract status, finding an upgrade to Kluwe in the Draft and exchanging his $1.4 million salary for a rookie deal might just make too much sense.

The key to all of this, however, is finding a rookie that can be a clear upgrade to Kluwe like the Vikings found at kicker last year with Blair Walsh.  I’ve already talked about how I think Ray Allen is that guy but may require a very high level of investment from a draft pick standpoint.  This is actually a fairly talented and fairly deep punter class, but outside of Allen only one other guy really stands out as an excellent prospect.

LSU’s Brad Wing (6′ 3″ and 184 pounds) is unlikely to relieve Priefer of all drama on his squad, as he comes with a bit of a history.  Wing is Australian born (do I even need to continue?) and, thus, has a brazen attitude and a tendency to find himself a “good time.”  Its okay, I can say stuff like that, my best friend is an Aussie.

He first became noticed on a national level when he… a punter, mind you… nullified his own 52 yard touchdown run on a fake due to taunting the opponents prior to crossing the goalline.  In his defense, as the video evidence shows, it was kind of a weak call.  His troubles didn’t stop there as he was suspended for the Chick-Fil-A Bowl due to breaking team rules, and at least one unconfirmed report said it was substance related, and there have been rumors of other off-field incidents plaguing the young talent.

Wing became the first punter to declare early for the NFL Draft, he was a redshirt sophomore in 2012, since Chris Gardocki did it way back in 1991 and he certainly has the leg to justify such a move.

Wing started 24 games at LSU after playing just one year of high school ball as an exchange student.  He was second in the SEC with a 2011 punt average of 44.4 yards and last ranked 12th in the nation with a 44.8 yard average.  He occasionally unleashes ridiculously powerful punts like his 73 yarder against Alabama in 2011, eight more career punts of 60 yards or greater.

Perhaps even more important, however, is the talent he displays for directional punting.  He has explained that his ability to do this with such proficiency comes from another game in another hemisphere:  Australian Rules Football.

“You can score from any angle and distance so there’s a lot of kicks I’ve gotten used to over the years where the American kickers they just kind of stand there and kick it as far and high as they can,” Wing said in 2011. “That’s not my mindset. I’m just trying to kick it away from the return man. Coming over to America, I didn’t really understand why punters kicked to the return man.”

As of that article, dated January 6th, 2011, Wing had amazingly punted the football 50 times and LSU had only allowed six (yes, six) punt return yards in total.  That is pretty amazing, really.

Now, maybe having Tyrann Mathieu on the coverage squad had a lot to do with that, because LSU’s overall punting game was quite as dominant in 2012, but Wing still was a cut above most punter prospects in most respects.

The question for NFL teams is whether or not they will be able to depend on Wing to stay out of trouble and be available on a weekly basis.  The last thing an NFL team wants to do is use two roster spots on punters because the first one couldn’t stay smart.  Without knowing how teams truly view Wing’s character it is impossible to predict where he will be selected.  He is talented enough to be a third round pick, but is troubled enough to go undrafted.

If he starts to fall on Draft weekend, and the Vikings are intrigued enough, then he might just be a solution to a problem that is only one year away from being a significant one.  For some NFL team’s fans, he will surely be one of the most intriguing players to watch in training camp.

 

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