Punters, kicks and long snappers are people too.
For the most part, it’s the same faces from last year on special teams for the Vikings. There’s plenty of room for improvement, however, as special teams coordinator Mike Priefer has made that clear so far during the offseason. He’s trying to convert the same tough mentality on special teams that head coach Mike Zimmer has established on the entire team.
We wrap up our Vikings training camp preview by analyzing the special teams unit.
SAFE BET STARTER: Blair Walsh, Jeff Locke
The Vikings opted not to bring in competition for Locke despite an inconsistent season. He was a below average punter compared to the rest of the league, finishing 21st in net average (38.7 yards) on 75 punts. Locke’s touchbacks doubled from three to six last year. He clearly has the leg but lacks the control and consistency needed at the position. This is a big year for Locke to put it all together in his third season and help the Vikings flip the field on a weekly basis.
Walsh is in the final year of his rookie deal, and he’s coming off the worst season in his three-year career. He connected on 74.3 percent of his field goals. Walsh missed three field goals inside 40 yards last year after missing just one within that range in his first two seasons.
Granted Walsh and Locke had to adapt to playing outdoors but so did the visiting teams. They both came across some protection issues as well, but the Vikings need Walsh to return to form again this year.
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: It’s unknown at this point who will be the starting punt returner. Marcus Sherels has been returning punts for the last four years, but rookie wide receiver Stefon Diggs is an intriguing option. Sherels, who will be fighting for a roster spot (though history shows to never count Sherels out before training camp), finished sixth in the NFL last year averaging 11 yards per punt return. He was second in 2013 in that stat averaging 15.2 yards per return. Diggs is a dynamic athlete that returned kicks and punts at some point during his career at Maryland. He is dangerous in space as a receiver and can bring that same threat returning punts this season.
THE BURNING QUESTION: Will long snapper Cullen Loeffler, who has spent his entire 11-year career with the Vikings, make the team this year? Loeffler was the least accurate long snapper last year, according to Pro Football Focus, and the Vikings signed Kevin McDermott during the offseason to compete for the starting job. McDermott, in his third season, was teammates with Locke at UCLA and has played for the Ravens and 49ers over the last two years.
There is still a week until Major League Baseball’s non-waiver trading deadline, so speaking in absolutes about a team’s strengths and weaknesses at this point might be a little foolish and subject to change. That said, we are well past the halfway point in this Twins season, churning toward the 100-game mark next week, so we should at least have an idea of a team’s identity.
Surprisingly — perhaps even shockingly — the identity of a Twins team that is 7 games over .500 and in line (for now) to make the postseason is clear: it’s the starting pitching, and it’s not even really close. While the offense has produced in spurts (often aided by clutch hitting, which usually comes in spurts) and the bullpen has pieced things together at least adequately (thanks primarily to a stellar year from closer Glen Perkins), the starting pitching has been the most consistent thread through this strong 95 games and the thing that has prevented lulls (so far) from becoming tailspins.
Ervin Santana’s masterpiece Thursday was the latest piece of evidence toward this simple truth: if the Twins are going to make the playoffs, it will be on the strength of their greatest recent weakness. They have three guys going right now — Santana, Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes, the last of which is starting tonight as the Twins come home for a big series against the Yankees — who are more likely than not to pitch well. They have two others — Tommy Milone and Mike Pelfrey — who have pitched above expectations this season. If anyone falters, Trevor May is a capable fallback. And none of this mentions Ricky Nolasco, last year’s spendy free agent.
This is the unit with the most depth and the most ability right now. The offense is 10th in the AL in runs and 12th in OPS. The bullpen is 11th in the league in ERA. The starting pitching? Fourth in the AL in ERA and 10th in MLB in ERA.
The Twins don’t have the bullpen to catch Kansas City or the offense to outslug most teams. But they might have enough starting pitching to not only have their first winning season since 2010 but also squeeze into the postseason. In a season of surprises, the fact that the starting pitching is leading the charge is the biggest one.
Episode one: Vikings beat writer Matt Vensel and Digital Sports Editor Michael Rand are joined by columnist Chip Scoggins as they preview the start of Vikings training camp by counting down the most important players on this year's team and debating which players have the most to gain or lose in 2015.
The secondary is the second most important unit to watch during training camp behind the offensive line. There are many questions at cornerback and safety for the Vikings, though they do have options at both positions.
The Vikings have two blue chip pieces in the secondary in Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith. They’re are deeper at cornerback with the addition of Terence Newman and Trae Waynes through free agency and the draft. It’s unsure at this point who will start opposite of Rhodes and who will be used in the nickel.
The Vikings added safety Taylor Mays in free agency, but he was cut right before minicamp. Undrafted rookie free agent Anthony Harris was the only addition this offseason at the position as the Vikings seek a safety to pair with Smith. They’ll likely need to find that starter from a trio of players that were on the roster last yar.
We continue our Vikings training camp preview by analyzing the secondary.
SAFE BET STARTERS: Xavier Rhodes, Harrison Smith
Two of the best players on the Vikings are located in the secondary. Smith was the best player on the team last season and arguably the second best Vikings player on the roster heading into camp behind running back Adrian Peterson. He’s capable of operating at both safety positions with his versatility as a blitzer and a cover safety. He has a very mellow personality, but Smith is very tough. He walked out of Lambeau Field last year in a walking boot after injuring his left ankle in a blowout loss to the Packers in Week 5. Smith still played every snap against Green Bay, and he played every snap the following week against the Lions despite wearing the boot for most of the week.
Rhodes took a big step forward last season flashing his potential as a lockdown cornerback. He thrived in head coach Mike Zimmer’s defense, and he even received the opportunity to shadow the best wide receiver in the NFL for a game in Calvin Johnson. He’s another key piece — along with Smith, defensive end Everson Griffen and linebacker Anthony Barr — on this defense that will need to continue to improve in order for the Vikings to have a top 10 defense this year.
BACKUPS: Captain Munnerlyn, Trae Waynes, Terence Newman, Jabari Price, Shaun Prater, Josh Robinson, Marcus Sherels, DeMarcus Van Dyke, Justin Coleman, Jalil Carter, Robert Blanton, Antone Exum Jr., Andrew Sendejo, Anthony Harris
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: Right guard and strong safety are the two biggest question marks heading into training camp. Blanton won the starting strong safety job by default last year despite suffering a hamstring injury during training camp. Andrew Sendejo finished the last three games of the season as the starter, however, even after Blanton recovered from a leg injury during the final month of the season.
The Vikings didn’t use one of their 10 draft picks on a safety despite the glaring hole at the position. Exum is a big reason why, as we found out after the draft from general manager Rick Spielman. Exum converted from a cornerback at Virginia Tech to a safety in the NFL, and the Vikings are still high on the sixth round pick in 2014. He’s expected to be in the mix with Blanton and Sendejo.
THE BURNING QUESTION: Fans expect first round picks to have an immediate impact as rookies, but the cornerback position is one of the most difficult positions to play in the NFL. So how exactly will Zimmer use Waynes this season? The Vikings tried Waynes out not only as an outside cornerback but in the slot during OTAs and minicamp while Captain Munnerlyn was sidelined in a walking boot. The 11th overall pick likely won’t start immediately, but Waynes will get some opportunities to receive snaps this season. Zimmer has raved about how coachable Waynes has been since his Pro Day at Michigan State. We’ll see how quickly he can catch on to Zimmer’s technique and scheme.
We can get cute in our assessment of the Vikings as they barrel toward the start of training camp later this week, picking out this player here or that player there who will influence the team’s ultimate 2015 success.
The return of Adrian Peterson? Yes, of course. The play of the offensive line, particularly Matt Kalil? Certainly. The wide receivers … the defensive backs … the linebackers … the pass rush … important, important, important, important.
But if we’re being honest, it all begins and ends with Teddy Bridgewater. Yes, he will not succeed or fail by himself — and yes, the play of the offensive line will have a direct bearing on all of it — but in this NFL, it has been well-established: the passing game is royal and the QB is the king. If the Vikings are going to live up to their scary preseason hype — Peter King had them sixth (!) in his preseason power rankings last month, and yes that’s sixth in the NFL, not the NFC, the latter of which even might have turned heads — their season almost certainly will hinge on the play of their second-year quarterback.
#Ted had a promising rookie season, getting better as the year went along. He posted passer rating numbers above 114 in three of his final five starts, and this was without Peterson and with an offensive line decimated by injury (and to a degree general ineffectiveness). He was fantastic under pressure, a great trait (and rare one for a rookie).
That said, there are still legitimate reasons to wonder just how good Bridgewater will become. I still don’t know if he’ll ever throw the deep out with great aplomb (though I still don’t know if that’s essential). And nitpickers can still question whether Bridgewater is more game manager than game-changer.
The really good news, though, is that we don’t have to wonder this: if Bridgewater is primed for a sophomore slump. If you are caught up in that notion, having had the term drilled into your head for years, know that it does not apply to NFL quarterbacks.
There is a wealth of good reading out there on the subject, but I still recommend this Georgetown analytics piece as prime evidence that the sophomore slump, as it pertains to NFL QBs, is a myth.
In more artistic pursuits, you might find it to be a very real thing. A musician will spend an entire lifetime crafting songs up to the point of releasing a debut album and then spend the next year or two cramming and pressing for the same creativity in the follow-up. Same goes for a writer consumed by penning the great American novel and then wondering after it’s smashing success how he or she will ever top it. Eventually those who truly are greats will work through this anguish and produce a body of master works … but it might take time well beyond just the second effort.
Quarterbacking, however, is a cumulative effort. Everything Bridgewater has done up to this point is applicable in his second NFL season and should, in fact, help him become even better (as did virtually every QB in that linked piece above).
So feel free to worry about plenty of things with this year’s Vikings — and even Teddy specifically. But don’t worry about him magically becoming worse with age.