In his first season in the NFL, and with only year playing Division I college football, Cordarrelle Patterson made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner.
He also made teams change the way they approach kicking to the Minnesota Vikings.
Devin Hester had nine more returns than Patterson but only 39 more yards. Meanwhile, Patterson led the league with a 32.2-yard average per kickoff return, having a league-leading 10 that went 40 yards or more. The next closest competitor in that last statistic had five, and Patterson didn’t fumble once in his 43 attempts.
The Vikings’ 66 returns were due in part to Patterson having the green light to return a kick no matter how deep into the end zone it went. But teams also learned to kick away from him and that has the Vikings approaching this training camp a bit differently in the return game.
Instead of using the more traditional blocking players at about the 10-yard line with the main kick returner behind them, the Vikings are looking at a series of more skilled returners to give them a decent option if a team pooches a kick short in hopes of keeping the ball out of Patterson’s hands.
“Some of the kicks that we faced, too, we put a lot of skill guys back because people weren’t kicking to Cordarrelle. They were spraying the ball all over the place, so we’re always looking for guys that can go back there and not only catch the kick but get good returns, as well.”
Marcus Sherels, Josh Robinson and Jerick McKinnon are the top candidates if Patterson isn’t used on kickoff return as much because of his increased role on offense, but that isn’t expected to be the plan.
Last year, Toby Gerhart ended up with seven returns for 106 yards being one of the up backs in the return game, and other backup running backs like Matt Asiata and Jerome Felton were among the six Vikings that ended up with multiple returns in addition to Patterson. Asiata, Felton, tight ends Chase Ford and John Carlson, and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd were all targeted for two returns during the season.
Teams quickly realized they wanted to keep the ball away from Patterson and the Vikings are now adjusting to that.
Jerick McKinnon and Joe Banyard are both faster options than Gerhart, Asiata, Felton or the tight ends or Floyd. So is wide receiver Adam Thielen, who has also been part of the mix at the “up back” in the return game during the first week of camp.
Training camp and the preseason are when those spots will be developed, and younger players are usually the ones winning some of the special-teams spots. Ultimately, those decisions will be up to head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman. However, Priefer hopes to be influential when special teams abilities could be the determining factor on which ones get some of the final roster spots.
“Every year you go into the preseason games not knowing who’s going to be on the 53-man (roster). Those last six, seven spots of your roster,” Priefer said.
“You’ve got to pick and choose your battles, too. If I stand on the table or jump on the table for 15 guys, well, who’s going to listen to me? But if there’s three or four guys that I truly believe in and need to make our team and help us on special teams, those are the guys I’ll battle for.”
Priefer said the Vikings have changed some of the personnel on the kickoff coverage team, too. Consistency is the focus for the coverage units.
“On kickoff, we didn’t do a good enough job of squeezing; we didn’t do a good enough job at the point of attack,” he said. “On punts, really it was the one punt return against Green Bay. Other than that, I thought we covered punts fairly well, especially the second half of the year. I think we gave up an average of maybe 5 yards a return. That had a lot to do with Jeff (Locke) getting better.”
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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