There’s a New Contender for the Vikings Punt Returner Job (and It’s Not Jordan Addison)

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at North Carolina State
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Yes, Jordan Addison is in the running for the Vikings punt returner job, but that’s not who we’re discussing.

Instead, it’s UDFA Thayer Thomas. After the draft concluded, the North Carolina State alumnus joined the Vikings as part of a group of UDFAs highlighted by edge rusher Andre Carter and linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. Even among the UDFA receivers he has been a bit overlooked, with plenty of attention going to the recently-injured Malik Knowles.

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Thomas, though, may have a role to play in Minnesota.

Like basically every depth receiver, Thomas will need to show he’s capable of contributing on special teams to earn a spot on the final roster. The early days of training camp have featured precisely that opportunity.

Judd Zulgad of SKOR North tweeted, “Jalen Reagor, Thayer Thomas and Jordan Addison getting in pre-practice work catching punts from the JUGS machine.” Sam Ekstrom of Bally Sports has made a similar observation while noting that “Thayer Thomas has made some nice catches in practice.”

The Competition for The Vikings Punt Returner Job

Very little is certain on August 1st, but we do have 99.9% certainty about a few key spots at receiver.

Justin Jefferson is the locked-in WR1. Behind him are K.J. Osborn and Jordan Addison, players who are fighting for the coveted WR2 spot in Minnesota. Whoever loses that competition will (presumably) be the WR3. Their spots on the roster are a near certainty (though Osborn is an outside-the-box trade candidate).

Fired up a No
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Otherwise, the Vikings seem quite happy with Jalen Nailor, who was given the nickname Speedy. WR5 onward presents plenty of uncertainty and no shortage of competition.

In all likelihood, Jalen Reagor remains the favorite to take that spot. After all, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah traded for him last offseason with the idea of leaning on the former 1st-round selection to supercharge the Vikings punt returner spot. What actually happened, of course, was anything but supercharged.

The punt return game was anemic in 2022. Reagor averaged a meager 6.4 yards per return, one of the worst marks in the NFL. He was unable to pick up a touchdown as a returner. Even more discouraging, perhaps, is that Reagor only had 8 catches, 104 yards, and a single TD while playing in all 17 games last year.

About that Guarantee in the Motor City..
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That’s why Thayer Thomas has a shot, folks.

In his final season in college, Thomas had 17 punt returns go for 128 yards, leading to a 7.5 yards-per-return average. Not earth shattering numbers, but something to monitor when we remember that the 7.5 average was the lowest of his college career. He was up at 9.5 in 2021 and 10.0 in 2020. He even hit a 13.7 yards-per-return average in 2019 while also scoring a touchdown.

NCAA Football: Boston College at North Carolina State
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The word from Zulgad and Ekstrom suggests that the Vikings are giving the rookie an honest shot at winning the punt returner job. Matt Daniels’ opinion will thus go a long way in whether Thomas makes the final roster.

For whatever it’s worth, Thomas also has several rushes and passes in his college career, suggesting that he’s capable of being used as a bit of a gadget player on offense. The more a young player can do, the better.

Minnesota’s opening preseason game will take place on Thursday, August 10th. One thing to monitor is how Thayer Thomas does while fielding punts. Watch for someone who appears poised while the ball is in the air and who is capable of holding onto the football while going into contact. In a perfect world, Thomas will even be able to pick up some yards.

Thomas, 25, will be wearing the #89 jersey. As part of his 3-year, $2.705 million deal, Thomas received $110,000 in guaranteed money.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference, Sports Reference CFB, the Vikings website, and Over the Cap helped with this piece.