The key, however, is consistency, and rookies Josh Robinson and Jarius Wright, along with second-year pro Bryan Walters, may not have had enough opportunity to show what they can do in game conditions for the Vikings to move on from incumbent return man Marcus Sherels.
Each one of the top four punt return options for special teams coordinator Mike Priefer has one return in the preseason, with Wright leading the way with a 15-yarder. None of the other options have had more than 5 yards on a return, and Priefer said the blockers didn't do a good enough job Friday against the Buffalo Bills to get a good look at his return options.
"I have my ideas because of practice tape and, as I tell these guys, all these young guys especially, practice is just as important as a game," Priefer said. "We're evaluating the show teams, the regular teams and of course all the preseason games."
If training camp practices are a good indication, the two rookies don't look comfortable enough field punts to allow Priefer to relax, if that is even possible.
"The guy I'm most comfortable with back there would be Marcus Sherels because he's done it before and he is a very sure-handed guy," Priefer said. "Josh Robinson has some juice to him as you have seen on defense as well. Bryan Walters has been there before, he's done it, and Jarius Wright is kind of in the developmental stage right now to be honest with you. But he's getting better, which excites me because he has a lot of talent as well."
Last year, Sherel was the only option used, returning 33 punts, fair-catching another 20 and finishing with an 8.4-yard average.
Wright returned only eight punts at Arkansas, six of those coming his freshman year. He averaged 6.1 yards over the course of those eight returns. Robinson returned 27 punts at Central Florida, with 20 of those coming in 2010 and seven last year, averaging 13.2 yards per return.
All of the punts last week in the Metrodome were fielded cleanly, but with any sort of breeze at training camp, Wright and Robinson struggled. Of late, Robinson has looked more comfortable, but whether he can impress Priefer enough in the next two preseason games to make a difference remains to be seen.
"Obviously indoors it won't be as big of a deal, but then you have a guy coming in this weekend like Mike Scifres, who I've gone against many, many times over the years, and he's just going to bombs away," Priefer said. "We'll have our guys a little bit deeper. Hopefully it'll be a little bit easier to track. Obviously it's not outdoors, but when we get outside my concern level goes up because of the inexperience with those two young guys."
As the Vikings cut down their roster, as required by the NFL, from 90 players to 75 next Friday and then to the regular-season limit of 53 on Aug. 31, special teams will play a role in who stays and who goes. Priefer said the roster decisions this year will be "real interesting" with more competition for jobs this year on offense and defense. Special teams will play a factor.
Robinson and Wright are expected to make the team after being drafted in the third and fourth rounds, respectively, but if they don't get comfortable in a hurry fielding punts, it could mean another season with Sherels in that position.
"At the end of the day, I've always told those guys ball security. I've preached that since I've been here, like most special teams coordinators do. Ball security is number one. We have to give the ball back to the offense," Priefer said. "If I don't feel comfortable or the head coach doesn't feel comfortable with putting a guy out there that I'm not sure if he's going to catch it or not, even though if he does catch it he might get a big play, I'll go with the guy who is going to be more secure. At the end of the day, we have to get the ball back at the end of that play."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.