Careers on the line, snappers forge forward
Every season, NFL teams have challenges for roster spots and starting jobs. Sometimes they are front and center spotlight battles, as two quarterbacks compete for the starting job or a veteran incumbent faces a test from a highly-drafted rookie.
Then there are the battles that don’t get as much attention, fights for the last handful of spots on the 53-man roster and practice squad competitions. They don’t get nearly the same level of attention, and the winners and losers are rarely noticed by casual fans.
This year, the Vikings have a training camp battle that may not seem vital, but could make the difference between winning and losing games, as Cullen Loeffler and Kevin McDermott compete for one spot as the team’s long snapper.
It has been a long time since the Vikings had a legitimate competition for the long snapper position. Loeffler is the vested veteran of the Vikings roster, having played 11 seasons with the team. When asked when the last time was that he faced a legitimate fight for his job in training camp, Loeffler was hard-pressed to come up with an answer.
“Everyone has been asking me that,” Loeffler said. “To be honest, I can’t even remember. I think it was like 2007 or 2008 that there has been a full-out competition. I know it’s been a long time. There are always guys they’ve brought in for little stints, but they haven’t stuck around long. Kevin has been doing a good job, so this is a real competition and it forces me to be a better player and be really focused on what I’m doing.”
The Vikings have gone against convention the last several seasons, often coming into camp with just three specialists – one kicker, one punter and one long snapper. Many teams that have veteran kickers and punters will often bring players in – commonly referred to as “camp legs” – to take some of the workload off their veterans.
It’s almost a given that those part-time kickers and punters won’t make the roster. The Vikings have opted to use up those extra roster spots for position players rather than camp legs, so the specialist group has become pretty tight-knit because, from offseason practices through the end of the season, it’s just the three of them, despite the faces changing from time to time.
The team has used Day 3 draft picks to lock down their kicking specialists – selecting kicker Blair Walsh in 2012 and Jeff Locke in 2013. In both instances, the incumbents were released within days of the draft, leaving no competition in training camp or the preseason.
“We’ve had just three guys for the last few years, but in a lot of those, we had a guy who had to get up to speed,” Loeffler said, “Whether it was Ryan (Longwell), (Chris) Kluwe, Blair or Jeff,” Loeffler said. “This time, we’ve all been together for awhile and this is just an added push for competition at my position.”
This time around it’s different. Loeffler wasn’t released. He has to compete with McDermott, a third-year pro from UCLA who spent his rookie season as the full-time long snapper in San Francisco and last year as an injury replacement in Baltimore. He has NFL experience with successful teams, which makes him a viable alternative if the Vikings choose to go that direction.
It would be natural to feel like an outsider coming into a team that has a group of specialists that have spent every day together for the last four training camps in the case of Walsh and three in the case of Locke. Being the new kid on the block is never easy, especially when going up against a long-time veteran with a track record of success. But McDermott has felt welcome with his new teammates and a member of the family, not an outsider sitting at the Thanksgiving kids table.
“I came in with utmost respect with what the Vikings have done with their special teams,” McDermott said. “You have to be impressed with what Cullen has done. Not a lot of guys last 11 years in the NFL, so clearly he’s extremely good at what he does. He has treated me with great respect and welcomed me into the group, as have Blair and Jeff. I came in to focus on getting better as a snapper and have a chance to win the job. I’m not trying to ruffle any feathers. I’m just trying to do my job.”
There has been a misconception that the Vikings would save hundreds of thousands of dollars by keeping McDermott, a third-year undrafted free agent, as opposed to Loeffler, a vested veteran of 11 NFL seasons. However, provisions in the Collective Bargaining Agreement allow teams salary cap credit for veteran players with Loeffler’s experience and a percentage of the contract is guaranteed whether he makes the final roster or not, which doesn’t completely negate the salary difference, but, in NFL salary cap terms, makes the difference negligible in the bigger picture of things.
In short, it’s an even competition without a frontrunner and dollars don’t play a big factor in the decision.
The two have been splitting reps, which can take away a rhythm that a veteran long snapper typically gets into during practices. But Loeffler has seen the bright side of the time share, saying that it has made him more focused than he has been in a long time due to watching another player doing his job.
“We’re splitting reps and basically going one-for-one,” Loeffler said. “If anything, it’s helping me in staying a little more fresh because we do a lot of snaps during camp. It’s been a while since I haven’t taken every single rep, so it’s good for me for where I’m at in my career. It also helps me refocus for each and every snap because I’m not getting as many as before where you can work on things throughout practice.”
Coming in as an outsider is nothing new for McDermott. In his third team in three seasons, he is no stranger to taking over for a long-time veteran. The situation for him is neither overwhelming nor daunting. Despite having just two seasons under his belt, coming into what could be viewed as hostile work conditions isn’t unique.
“I’ve been in a few situations as a snapper that are a little similar,” McDermott said. “In my rookie year with the 49ers, I came into a similar situation. Brian Jennings had been the long snapper there for 12 years and I was the rookie coming in. It was very similar. Last season, I played in Baltimore for 10 games and took over for another veteran, Morgan Cox, who was injured. Every situation is different, but you approach it the same – you’re looking to make your team better and hope that you can be that guy.”
Both Loeffler and McDermott have been promised a fair and equitable competition to take place during the preseason and training camp. No guarantees have been made. No loyalty will earn additional brownie points. It’s a competition based solely on merit, execution and performance and whichever one performs better will win the spot on the 53-man roster.
“That’s all I’ve been looking for is an opportunity to compete,” McDermott said. “Cullen is one of the best long snappers in the NFL, so I know I have to perform at a high level to win the job. I know it won’t be easy. But I want to have a long career in the NFL and keep improving. If I don’t win the job here, my NFL career won’t be over because I feel I’m better now than I’ve ever been and I just want to keep improving.”
Loeffler feels much the same way. He and his family split time between their home in Minnesota and their home in his native Texas and he has come to find Minnesota to be his adopted home. While he is mindful that the clock is ticking down on his NFL career, it isn’t over yet. He knows the day will come when he is no longer in the NFL, but that day isn’t yet. He isn’t looking over his shoulder, but he is fully aware of the ramifications of the situation.
The last time the Vikings brought in special teams competition, the incumbents lost out. He realizes he could be next, but isn’t letting that get into his head.
“There’s only going to be one spot,” Loeffler said. “If you’re afraid of competition, you’re not going to make it in this league. It’s made me work harder and made me feel like I’m younger because I’ve been working so hard during this offseason. Only one of us will end up here and we each want it. We’re both going to give it everything we have and we both think we have the skill to win the job. It comes down to whoever the coaches and Rick Spielman think is doing the better job will win it. It’s just that simple.”
For all the talk of competition for starting positions and roster spots in the NFL, the Loeffler-McDermott battle is a winner-take-all battle that, when a game is on the line with a last-second field goal attempt, may be far more vital than fans realize.
May the better long snapper win.
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