Minnesota’s All-Pro Special Teamer Returns

Nov 24, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Kene Nwangwu (not shown) returns a kick for a touchdown against the New England Patriots during the third quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off a 13-4 campaign in the first year of Kevin O’Connell’s tenure, many envisioned the 2022 season as the beginning of something special. However, in the second season, that magic disappeared. The offense is inconsistent, drop and turnover issues are starting to pile up, and the lucky bounces from last season stopped happening.

Minnesota’s All-Pro Special Teamer Returns

All-Pro Special Teamer Returns
Sep 25, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Kene Nwangwu (26) in action against the Detroit Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports.

With Justin Jefferson on injured reserve and nobody else on offense stepping up, the team clearly needs another difference-maker. The good news? Well, one of those was waiting on IR for his emergence. The Vikings opened the practice window for kick returner Kene Nwangwu last week. From that point on, the franchise had 21 days to activate him to the 53-man roster.

On Wednesday, that is exactly what the Vikes did. To make room for the transaction, Minnesota placed outside linebacker Marcus Davenport on IR because of an ankle sprain, the team announced.

Nwnagwu had been suffering from a lower back injury for months, and after missing most of training camp and the full preseason, he was stashed on IR. He automatically missed the first four games. Eventually, he was sidelined for the first six contests, but his return is good news for special teams coordinator Matt Daniels.

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Oct 2, 2022; London, United Kingdom; Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf (right) greets running back Kene Nwangwu. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports.

Kick returns are a dying breed in the NFL, especially with the latest rule change. A kick returner can now opt to call for a fair catch anywhere on the field, and the ball will be spotted at the 25-yard line. The strategy of kicking the ball short of the endzone to force a return is no longer possible.

Fellow backup running back Ty Chandler stepped in for Nwangwu but only returned three kicks for 70 yards. Many teams just stopped returning the ball. But the good return specialists still get their chances. Rashid Shaheed and Keisean Nixon each logged at least ten returns, DeeJay Dallas eight, and a couple of other players six.

It’s fair to envision Nwangwu joining the group of frequent returners. He has been excellent in that role, proving to be a true game-changer that can spark his team. Just last year, in the Thanksgiving game against the New England Patriots, the Vikings perhaps wouldn’t have come away with a win if not for his score.

Nwangwu has been arguably the best kick returner in the NFL since he joined the Vikings in the 2021 draft. The fourth-rounder is nominally a running back but barely has an impact that way. He leads the NFL with three kick return touchdowns throughout his NFL career and ranks first in average yards per kick return among players with at least 12 attempts in the same span.

Is Kene
Nov 28, 2021; Santa Clara, California, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Kene Nwangwu (26) carries the ball against the San Francisco 49ers during the fourth quarter at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports.

The return specialist was snubbed from Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors in his rookie season despite finding the endzone a couple of times, including against the upcoming opponent, the San Francisco 49ers. Like 2023, he also missed the first six games of that season. One year later, in 2022, Nwangwu was named second-team All-Pro kick returner.

Another interesting wrinkle could be his usage on offense. Bringing 4.3 speed to the table, putting him in the backfield is intriguing, especially with speedsters Raheem Mostert and De’Von Achane dominating in Miami’s offense.

The Vikings have been struggling to run the football, so special teams aren’t the only phase in which Nwangwu could provide a spark.

The 25-year-old is available on Monday when the 49ers come to town. His game-changing skills could be necessary against the dominant NFC rivals.

Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt