OFFSEASON PREVIEW: The Specialists
[NOTE FROM ADAM: This is the final installation of my position-by-position breakdown of the Vikings offseason. You can click the links to view previous installments: The Passers, The Runners, The Wide Outs, The Tight Ends, The Offensive Line, The Defensive Tackles, The Defensive Ends, The Linebackers, The Cornerbacks, and The Safeties.]
This is the shortest and quickest of my Offseason Preview because I really only focus on three roster spots. That isn’t to say that long snapper, kicker, and punter aren’t important positions… there just isn’t a whole lot to talk about here.
In fact, I will keep this really short. So short, I won’t even add the little “read more” tab that takes you to a new page.
Long snapper Cullen Loeffler signed a four year extension on October 7th and then a crack back block cracked his back in November and he landed on injured reserve. Matt Katula was signed to replace him on special teams but was awful. Loeffler’s surgery on his back is said to have gone well, and he will be back in plenty of time for the regular season. Katula is set to become an unrestricted free agent and is highly unlikely to get a job in Minnesota again. The Vikings may, however, decide to sign a long snapper to join them in Mankato after evaluating Loeffler’s health in August and to make sure he stays rested.
Punter Chris Kluwe had an average length per punt of 45.7 yards which was 19th in the NFL. His net average on those punts (i.e. where the ball was downed) was only 38 yards per attempt which dropped him down to 26th in the NFL, but blown assignments on the coverage team accounts for plenty of that yardage. He placed 22 punts inside the 20 yard line, which ranks 19th in the NFL, and 19 of his punts were fair caught which is good for a ranking of 12th. Despite ineptitude on offense, Kluwe only punted 77 times in 2011 which was 16th among all NFL punters.
Overall, Kluwe was getting decent hang time and distance on his punts for another season, and will almost certainly be back for 2012. He is entering the sixth year of his seven year contract and will earn $1.3 million. The team has way too many pressing needs to mess around with the punter position, so the social media tycoon will be back at it. He is also a pretty decent holder on place kicks.
Rick Spielman has not made it any secret that he wants this roster to get younger. Those looking at the roster with a reasonable amount of logic expect them to trim some fat by cutting or restructuring expensive veterans. Ryan Longwell’s production at kicker dropped way off in 2011. So why isn’t his name being thrown around as somebody who might be on the chopping block?
Last offseason the Vikings inexplicably committed (this didn’t come out until later in the season) $12 million over four years to a 37 year old kicker that was clearly losing leg strength. $3.5 million of that contract is guaranteed.
Longwell had a kickoff average of 64.8 yards (21st in the NFL), managed a career high 19 touchbacks (23rd) thanks to the NFL rule change on kickoff position, and attempted only one onside kick which failed.
Longwell was given the contract extension mainly because he was the league’s most accurate field goal kicker over the previous two years, but that was not the case in 2011. He made only 79% of his field goals (26th in the NFL), was two for three from beyond 50 yards, and even missed on an extra point.
Partly due to reputation and partly due to his contract, I do think Longwell will be back, but the Vikings shouldn’t keep themselves closed off from other options. Connor Barth (age 26), Matt Prater (28), and Josh Scobee (30) would all represent younger options with stronger legs should they become unrestricted free agents. Also, with the Vikings expecting to have a bunch of late round picks, a guy like Blair Walsh of Georgia or Randy Bullock of Texas A&M might fit right in with the Vikings long term rebuilding plans.
In the end, however, I suspect we will see zero turnover in these three positions. Expect Cullen Loeffler, Chris Kluwe, and Ryan Longwell to be your specialists once again in 2012.