Cullen Loeffler, the long snapper and longest tenured Minnesota Vikings player, is receiving competition for his job this offseason.
Jeff Locke, the punter who ranked in or near the bottom third in the NFL in numerous punting stats, will not have any such competition, although the Vikings coaching staff considered it.
“We talked about that back in the offseason, January, after the season. I don’t think so. We talked a little bit about it, but that wasn’t my recommendation,” special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. “I think they’re both very, very good – Jeff is a very good punter, Blair (Walsh) is a very good kicker. Are there things they need to work on and improve on? Absolutely, but the talent is there, the work ethic is there. They’re both young and they both are continuing to get better.”
Walsh had an excellent rookie season, but struggled with consistency last year. Locke has struggled with consistency in both of his seasons in the NFL since replacing veteran Chris Kluwe.
Last year, Locke was 25th with a 44.2-yard gross average and 22nd in net average at 38.7 yards. He put only two punts out of bounds, was 16th with 21 downed punts, 24th with 21 punts inside the 20, and sixth with six touchbacks.
The Vikings’ specialists made a big deal out of kicking in their temporary outdoor home at TCF Bank Stadium while U.S. Bank Stadium is constructed, but ultimately there were other games in which each of them struggled.
“Jeff’s got to be more consistent. We can talk about weather until we are blue in the face. It doesn’t matter,” Priefer said. “The opposing team’s kicking in the same weather and we were out-punted a few times last year where I felt like we had the better punter. So punting’s got to improve, the snapping needs to improve. Some areas of protection we need to improve on. Coverage was really good last year; we just need to be more consistent. We do it all the time, not four out of five reps but every rep.”
One indication of how well a punter is performing is the number of fair catches he produces as they strive for a balance of hang time and distance. Locke tied for 18th with 19 fair catches but had the sixth-most punts returned with 39.
The specialists often visited TCF Bank Stadium during the week of preparation for home games and Priefer said he believes both Locke and Walsh understood the winds down there.
“It was the cold that they’ve got to get used to. One is from Arizona, one is from Florida,” Preifer said. “No, I think we will still send them down there to continue to get more and more experience, so when we do get those opportunities on Sunday afternoons or whenever we play that they are ready to roll.”
Locke was Pro Football Focus’ 37th-rated punter with a grade of minus-22.3 and that statistical site had him ranked 21st in hang time (5.14 seconds) and seventh-most with 50.7 percent of his punts returned.
Locke is only 25 years old, so that could be a reason why the Vikings have exercised patience with him. It might also be why they decided against bringing in competition for him.
“I think with a lot of young guys it would be (delicate to bring in competition), not with Jeff. He’s a pretty mentally tough kid,” Priefer said. “I don’t think he would have a problem with it, but I just didn’t think it was necessary at this time, that was my opinion, my recommendation.”
Locke avoids camp competition
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