Challengers plentiful on special teams

A couple of Vikings specialists could see their greatest challenges in training camp and preseason this year.

The Minnesota Vikings have most of their starters set on offense and defense. With only a few positions open – guard on offense, middle linebacker and safety on defense – that’s a pretty good situation for 22 possible spots.

Specials teams have fewer “starters,” but there are still at least two unknowns. Kicker and punters are set, with no “backups” or “camp bodies” brought in yet for competition. But punt returner and long snapper have some competition this year.

Marcus Sherels has been the team’s main punt returner since 2011, but he always seems to be a player on the roster bubble.

“I think everybody that has talked to me before about Marcus Sherels understands or knows how I feel about him. I think he’s a very reliable returner, also is rated one of the better returners in this league in making people miss and getting the big yards when they’re there,” special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. “His average was outstanding last year and we had two or three really big returns called back, or his average could have been upwards of 13 or 14 yards per return. He’s a very reliable and talented returner that somebody is going to have to come in and beat him out. We’re going to have competition like we do every year, he knows that, but I’m excited about that because that’s only going to make him better and make our football team better.”

Last year, Sherels was sixth in the NFL with an 11.0-yard punt return average. Philadelphia’s Darren Sproles led the league with a 13.0-yard average.

But with game-day roster numbers limited, few teams keep a punt returner that doesn’t contribute in other areas. Sherels played in only 12 snaps on defense in 2014 and the competition at cornerback is tighter than ever with Terence Newman brought in via free agency and Trae Waynes drafted in the first round.

Fifth-round draft pick Stefon Diggs could pose a challenge there on punt returns, but there are a couple factors working against him. He returned 22 punts in 2012 at Maryland but only two in the last two years, and punt returner is one of the more dicey positions to entrust to a rookie.

“At this level it’s a little bit different. For me, I think it’s harder to be a punt returner in this league than a kickoff returner, but I think he can do both,” Priefer said.

Diggs has the quickness, but ball security and sure hands for fielding punts are prerequisites he will have to prove to unseat Sherels.

Still, Sherels isn’t the only specialist with a challenge. The longest tenured Viking, long snapper Cullen Loeffler, also has offseason competition for the first time in a long time.

The Vikings signed Kevin McDermott in April to challenge Loeffler. Although McDermott only has two years in the league – he has played in 23 games the last two years with the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers – salary shouldn’t be a determining factor between him and Loeffler, an 11-year veteran of the league.

McDermott has no guaranteed money on his contract with a salary cap number of $585,000. Loeffler counts only $665,000 against the cap as a “minimum salary benefit” veteran, but he has $300,000 in guaranteed money on the reworked contract he signed in March.

“He’s had a solid career, an outstanding career, and he’s been great for this football team and we just felt like this was the year to bring in the competition,” Priefer said of Loeffler.

“I think it will work itself out. I told both of those guys that I think at the end of the competition, both of them will know who won that competition. Again, I don’t make that final decision. It could become a numbers game in training camp with injuries. You never know how that’s going to go. I hope to get them to training camp and into the preseason games and see who’s going to be the best possible option there.”

Priefer said Loeffler and McDermott are encouraging each other, forming a healthy competition, but it will come down to their performances during the offseason and preseason.

“It’s just great competition right now and the best player, the best one is the one we’re going to keep, I’d think,” Priefer said.

Viking Update Top Stories