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Minnesota Vikings Getting Younger, More Dynamic on Special Teams

I did a piece a week or two ago on Vikings new Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf, and how he may be taking a more aggressive approach toward the special teams units.

And with the recent acquisition of Kicker/Punter Kaare Vedvik and the release of Kevin McDermott, it’s looking like a complete overhaul as well.

Out With the Old Guard, In With the Younger and More Dynamic

Last season, the Vikings had 31 year-old Marcus Sherels returning punts, and sometimes kicks. A job he’d managed to hold for several years. This year, it may be a mix of 26 year-old Ameer Abdullah, 25 year-old Chad Beebe, and possibly 25 year-old Jeff Badet or 22 year-old Bisi Johnson taking over those duties.

Last year, 29 year-old Kevin McDermott was long-snapper for the Vikings. This year 21 year-old Austin Cutting will take over.

And last year, 31 year-old Dan Bailey was kicker. But after trading for 25 year-old Kaare Vedvik, his days as a Viking appear to be numbered.

Even 27 year-old Matt Wile is at risk, as Vedvik has produced some better stats recently as a punter.

And so, in just a few days, the average age of the Vikings specialists may decrease about 6 years or so. But the reason isn’t simply age, as kickers are one of the few positions that have produced quality performers into their 40s.

Performance Matters

Just like any other position, specialists are judged on performance – and if you don’t perform at a high level your job is at risk in the NFL.

Long-Snapper

For a long-snapper, snap velocity, accuracy and consistency are the most valued traits, followed by size, athleticism, blocking and coverage ability. The quicker you can get the ball to the punter or holder, the more time they have to get the ball away. Every split-second counts. But equally important is accuracy and consistency- placing the ball in exactly the right spot, with the laces the right way every time, and at the same fast speed every time. Just like a well-oiled and calibrated machine. If speed and/or placement varies too much, it can throw a kicker’s timing or contact off slightly – which can make the difference between 3 points or a turnover on downs.

Austin Cutting has better velocity on his snaps than McDermott, and at his pro day was praised not only for that, but very consistent ball placement and even the rotation so the laces are always consistent away from the kicker.

Kicker

For kickers it comes down to two things: accuracy and distance.

In terms of accuracy, 85%+ is acceptable for field goal attempts, and pretty much 98%+ on extra point attempts.

Dan Bailey is 6th in career field goal accuracy percentage among active kickers, but he’s only being hitting on about a 75% clip for the past year or so, including in training camp this month. That’s just not good enough.

Kaare Vedvik, while still unproven as he hasn’t played in any regular season games, has made over 90% of his field goals in preseason games going back to last year, and did so in training camp as well.

The other aspect of kicking is distance – both “makeable” range as a field goal kicker, and distance on kickoffs.

For Dan Bailey, his makeable range is inside of 50 yards at this point, as he’s gone 7/13 from the 50+ range the past three years. Even the 40-49 yard range is proving more problematic, as he went only 4/9 from that range last year.

In terms of average kickoff distance, Bailey’s average kickoff landed on the 2 yard line last season, with a 4.01” hang time.

By contrast, Kaare Vedvik has shown better range on his field goal attempts, as he’s made all of his preseason field goals inside of 50 yards, including all 4 from the 40-49 yard range, while going 1-2 on 50+ yard field goals.

And in terms of kickoff distance, Vedvik’s kickoffs average about 4 yards deep in the end zone. That’s six yards longer than Bailey, and that differential makes a big difference in the number of touchbacks.

So in both key measures – accuracy and distance – Vedvik looks to be an improvement over Bailey in recent years. He’s still unproven in terms of regular season action, but clearly he’s demonstrated the ability to outperform Bailey, he just needs to show he can do it in real games, and in pressure situations.

Punter

For punters, it’s all about distance and hang time, with directional punting and inside-the-20 punts important too. Generally 44 yards with a 4.4” hang time, or better, is what teams want from a punter. Those two stats combined, when achieved, typically result in not a lot of punt return yardage as the coverage units are able to get there in time to prevent much of a return.

27-year old Matt Wile’s stats last season weren’t too bad – 45.2 yards per punt gross, with a 4.43” hang time.

Vedvik had two punts last week in preseason averaging 55.5 yards and a 4.56” hang time. That represents a significant improvement over his 2018 preseason averages of 46.8 yards per punt and a 4.27” hang time. Difficult to say if that extra distance has come from training this past year and will continue- he had some that distance in 2018 too- or if it was just a couple of positive outliers.

It’s difficult to say if Vedvik is a better directional punter than Wile, or if he’s better at landing punts deep inside the 20 than Wile. But those two skills are important for punters as well.

If Vedvik’s more recent out-performance proves durable in continued pre-season action, it could create a bit of a dilemma for the Vikings – whether to go with Vedvik in both roles – with greater injury risk – or settle for a slightly worse punter to minimize risk.

There is a third option as well: keep Wile as a backup punter (and kicker too), and holder. Wile could then perhaps be trained and used as a more specialized punter (for example punts deep inside the 20), and a holder that can execute fakes. Not sure he’s got what it takes for those roles, but it’s a thought.

Holder

While so far it seems Matt Wile may continue as holder on special teams, other guys have been getting the opportunity to try out their skills as a holder. I suspect Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf is looking for a more dynamic player in that position who creates more threat of a fake, and can actually pull it off, but we’ll see what happens. I’m not aware of anyone else that’s gotten any extended reps as a holder beyond the initial try-out.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be surprised if a offensive skill position player eventually is trained to become a holder, as I suspect that’s what Maalouf is looking for.

Returners

For returners, first and foremost is ball security. For many years, Marcus Sherels proved to be exceptionally reliable when it came to avoiding turnovers. According to PFF, Sherels had only one muffed return in his entire career with the Vikings – and five TD returns.

But perhaps more insightful, nearly half the time he went to return a punt, he called for and made a fair-catch. That means roughly half the time, the most important thing a punt returner can do is catch the ball – and not muff it. And when you have wind and lights to contend with, and big, fast athletes running full-bore just waiting to lay you out, not to mention many thousands of people making noise, and all the pressure that goes with not screwing up because if you do it could be game changing, there is an added degree of difficulty.

Beyond that, there are the unique skills associated with punt and kick returning. Vision and judgment are key, followed by good running ability and elusive skills – being able to avoid and/or break tackles – and the speed to take it to the house.

Sherels’ athleticism was only so-so, but he had the judgment and vision, along with adequate speed and elusiveness, to make some good returns.

At the moment, Ameer Abdullah is listed as the primary punt and kick returner for the Vikings on the depth chart. He’s got greater athleticism than Sherels, and perhaps the same or better vision, but he’s also had 8 fumbles on 327 carries (as a RB) in his career. Abdullah has returned 59 kickoffs, however, without a turnover. He has yet to return a punt in a regular season game.

Chad Beebe is also listed as a backup punt returner, and may be similar to Sherels in terms of size and athletic ability. He’s only returned a handful of punts in preseason, and just one last year (a fair-catch) during the regular season, so he’s unproven as well as a punt returner.

Beyond Beebe, there are more unproven options. Bisi Johnson is listed as a backup kick returner, along with Jeff Badet as the primary backup. Both of them did reasonably well with kick returns against the Saints, and Johnson had a punt return rep as well, which was a fair-catch. All of these players bring added athleticism to the job, but ball security, judgment and vision remain unproven.

Core Special Teamers

In the Vikings preseason game against the Saints, pretty much all the players getting most of the reps on special teams were not on the active roster last season. Of course there could be a good reason for that – to find out which depth guys have special teams ability the coaching staff doesn’t know about already – but nevertheless there will be some significant turnover in the core special teams units this season.

For example, Brandon Zylstra had the 4th most reps on special teams last season – but looks increasingly likely not to make the roster. Anthony Harris had the 6th most, but will likely be removed from special teams duty now that he’s a starting safety. Holton Hill had the 5th most snaps, but will be missing the first 8 games of the season. George Iloka had the 8th most, and is no longer with the team. C.J. Ham had the 2nd most, and there is at least some chance he doesn’t make the team either. All tallied, and including other special teamers no longer with the team, that’s probably around 1,200 snaps on special teams that will have to be done by new players. That translates into about half the the special teams players being new to the job this season.

The good news is that Holton Hill, Brandon Zylstra, and George Iloka were undistinguished on special teams last season, so they may be more easily replaced. Ham and Harris were two of the best performers though, so replacing them would be more difficult.

In any case, there’s still a lot of new Special Team Coordinator Marwan Maalouf’s plate in the next three weeks before Atlanta come to town.

Bottom Line

There are a lot of personnel changes on special teams this year, in addition to having a new Special Teams Coordinator. At this point all the main specialists could be new this year, and most of them will be. In addition, around half the other players on special teams could be new to the job this season too.

That’s a lot of change, and as Ted wrote, that can be a little disconcerting. That change could bring improvement where it is most needed on special teams – kicking the ball through the uprights – but it could also bring (or continue) random miscues that have plagued the Vikings special teams at times, particularly more recently.

There is also the chance for perhaps a bigger playbook on special teams, depending on how well things go with new players, and the various units overall. There is a certain amount of risk in all that, including the possibility that it backfires.

Maalouf does have a pretty good track record, or at least the Dolphins special teams units that he was assistant coach of for the past several seasons does. And that includes getting good production from rookie kickers and punters. Rookie Jason Sanders made 90% of his field goals last year for the Dolphins, and Cody Parker made 91.3%+ of his kicks in Miami before moving to Chicago and ending their season last year.

Kaare Vedvik seems to be doing all you could ask for from a kicker that has yet to play in a regular season game. Accuracy and distance both well above average. Austin Cutting has a better long-snapping skill set than McDermott, so there’s no reason he can’t do as well or better. And the rest of the new special teamers may prove to be an overall improvement – who knows.

But there’s a lot of coaching and learning to be done, and a lot of moving parts. Hopefully it all comes together in the next few weeks, and suddenly special teams become more of an asset than a liability this season.

So far it looks good on paper, but we’ll have to wait until the season starts to see the final product.

Poll

What do you think of all the changes the Vikings are making on special teams ?

  • 97%
    Upgrades were needed, better to make the changes than stay with the status quo

    (92 votes)

  • 2%
    Too many changes – will make things worse

    (2 votes)

94 votes total Vote Now

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