A Very Vikings Problem: Special Teams

In a perfect world, field goal kickers don’t miss kicks. They relegate themselves to a side field during practice, grab a bucket of balls, and spend hours taking reps from different spots on the grass. Their sole purpose is to turn the swing of a leg into three points, but the outcome isn’t always guaranteed.

Rarely do NFL kickers finish a year with a perfect field goal percentage. Sending a tiny, leather sphere through relatively narrow goalposts isn’t a surefire proposition; factors such as rushing defenders, wind, and the ‘yips’ often turn chip shots into near-impossible tasks for the kicker.

Still, fans expect perfection — even if perfection is rarely the outcome.

I do not. I’m a lifelong fan of the Minnesota Vikings, so I’ve grown accustomed to the inexplicable woes of place kickers. From Gary Anderson to Blair Walsh, I’ve seen, er, sobbed through it all. I no longer take a simple extra point for granted, and after the events of the 2016 season, the other few phases are suddenly a reason for concern.

Forget the offensive line — improved through free agency and the draft — or the quarterback situation; it’s special teams as a whole that could make or break the Vikings’ upcoming season.

Forbath or For Worse

Kai Forbath is a fine kicker, and by professional standards, one of the better options in the league. Last season, after joining the team in November, Forbath finished as the NFL’s most accurate man. He attempted 15 kicks, all of which sailed through the uprights. He did, however, miss three extra points; but 78% on PAT attempts was still more reliable than anything Walsh had offered previously.

Even with his accuracy and reliability, Forbath doesn’t appear to be the team’s ultimate answer at the position. His 2017 contract is a minimal, non-guaranteed $775,000 figure, which means cutting the veteran wouldn’t cost the Vikings a dime of salary cap space. There are also questions about his leg strength — particularly on attempts of 50-plus yards and his ability to force touchbacks on kickoffs.

Those aren’t questions with Marshall Koehn, though. The journeyman signed with the Vikings this offseason, but don’t call him a “camp leg.” When asked about the competition, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer dismissed the notion that Koehn is in Minnesota for the short-term, specifically highlighting his powerful leg.

“Koehn probably had the best workout, but we were more comfortable with Kai because he was more consistent,” Priefer said, per Mark Craig of the Star Tribune. “But Koehn has a big leg. He’s got the stronger leg. This kid is coming on strong. It’s a great competition.”

The competition is sure to continue when training camp opens later this month, and fortunately, the Vikings can afford to wait out the decision. Either way, entering the season with a question mark at kicker is a tricky proposition; even more so when considering the team’s questionable history at the position.

Punting the Future Away?

The days of Jeff Locke are over in Minnesota, but his departure leaves the Vikings with a void at punter. Five-year veteran Ryan Quigley signed with the team in April, but like Forbath isn’t guaranteed a starting spot. The team also signed Taylor Symmank this offseason, creating yet another competition at a traditionally underrated position.

More than the ceremonial kick to an opposing team, punters bring tremendous value to a roster, especially in the area of field position. Despite his lackluster averages in 2016, Locke still contributed to Minnesota’s top-10 “Drive Start” ranking. Throughout the year, teams on average started their drives on their 27-yard line, putting the Vikings’ defense in a position to attack and dictate the pace of the game.

In their next punter—whether Quigley or Symmank—the Vikings need a player with the leg to flip field position and the accuracy to pin opponents deep in their territory. Priefer said as much when speaking to the media in June, per Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press.

“With Ryan, obviously he’s the experienced punter,” Priefer said. “Taylor’s probably got a little bit stronger leg, but Ryan’s more consistent right now. Taylor’s working on his consistency, Ryan’s working on the leg strength and being the consistent directional punter that we want both of these punters to be.”

Priefer explicitly pointed to the need of a directional punter; someone who can kick away from elite returners and play to the strengths of the coverage team, ensuring disadvantageous field position for opponents. But for both kicking and punting competitions, he noted preseason performance would likely be the determining factor.

Gone in a Flash

Cordarrelle Patterson’s weaknesses as a wide receiver (and price tag) eventually forced his exit from Minnesota, but it was his strength as a kick returner that kept him in purple and gold for so long. The dichotomy made Patterson an expendable piece in 2016 despite leading the league in average yards per kick return.

In some ways, the Vikings took Patterson’s tremendous talents for granted, pigeon-holing him as a return man and failing to develop him on the offensive side of the ball. If the Oakland Raiders find a way to unleash his skill set in ways the Vikings couldn’t, the uproar will only grow louder. And if the Vikings don’t find a suitable replacement to return kicks, it’ll become deafening.

The question is, can anyone suitably replace Patterson? The answer lies somewhere on the roster in one of Minnesota’s many untested weapons. There’s Jerick McKinnon, do-it-all running back and someone I’d assume could be an explosive return man. If not McKinnon, look to Rodney Adams, a wide receiver drafted with the perceived intention of becoming Patterson’s 2017 replacement. Adams’ counterpart, fellow rookie Stacy Coley, could also fill the role.

“Every practice is competitive,” Adams said this offseason, per Tomasson. “You’ve got a lot of men out there competing for a spot, and it’s going to be aggressive. Everybody here is going to compete, so it’s going to be tough.”

Unfortunately, replicating Patterson’s production will be the toughest test of the group’s collective offseason. Like Locke, Patterson’s 31.7-yard average per kick return in 2016 put the Vikings in ideal field position, allowing the Minnesota offense to start drives, on average, at their 31-yard line.

With an improved running game and patches along the offensive line ahead of 2017, Sam Bradford and the offense would surely benefit from similar starting position this season. It’s unclear, however, who can provide such numbers, even if all options are capable of getting “loose” from the back of the end zone.

The Cockroach

Marcus Sherels is the starting punt returner. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Familiarity won’t serve as comfort in the face of my concern. While I like Forbath and think he’s a decent kicker, his shaky leg strength and questionable contract cast doubt on his future in Minnesota. As for Koehn, he’s yet to play in an NFL game and bounced around the bottom of an NFL roster before landing with the Vikings.

The same could be said of Quigley, who’s spent five years in the league but was cut from the Arizona Cardinals last season after averaging a career-low 41.6 yards per punt. He’s not a “safe” option for the Vikings, and no safer than the untested, undrafted Symmank. Even Locke, who drew the ire of Vikings fans the past few seasons, feels like a better bet heading into 2017.

When I think of new faces returning punts or kicks, I’m instantly transported to Adam Thielen’s muff of a critical punt against the Dallas Cowboys last year. Maybe cynicism is burning away my positive outlook, but special teams gives me the most anxiety as we rapidly approach the start of another Vikings campaign.

Unlike the recent arrivals along the offensive line, many of the players slotted to start at key special teams positions are relative unknowns. The positive spin from the coaching staff, no matter how sincere, is hard to believe when we haven’t seen said players take a live kick or return a punt under the bright lights of a primetime game.

Year after year, we’ve seen special teams let the Vikings down, even when we’ve been sure of the outcome — here’s looking at you, Gary. And in typical, unique Vikings fashion, maybe this is the year everything works out. Maybe this is the year, despite our better judgment, we’re proven wrong.

I’ll be holding my breath, as I do on every Vikings field goal, until then.

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Austin Belisle

Austin Belisle is the West Coast's biggest Vikings fan, a football diehard cheering on the purple and yellow from sunny California. After graduating from San Jose State University in 2014, he began working full-time in corporate marketing and blogging on various sports websites. Austin's passion for the Vikings led him to Vikings Territory, where he hopes to share his lifelong enthusiasm for the team with readers on a daily basis. You can follow him on Twitter @austincbelisle

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  1. Priefer is a good Special Teams Coach. I am putting my faith in him, that he can at least keep us at league average or better in all phases of special teams. It should be fun to see how our big makeover works out. Can’t wait!