Diggs challenging Sherels for Vikings job

Rookie Stefon Diggs stole the show Sunday night with a 62-yard punt return, but the job isn’t his just yet. (Photo: Andrew Weber/USA TODAY)

One position battle taking place on the Minnesota Vikings roster that not many people are talking about is the one for the starting punt returner. Might rookie Stefon Diggs be Marcus Sherels’ biggest competition?

For the past few years that job has belonged to Sherels, and he has done a good job while in that position. But this offseason the team drafted Diggs in the first round and people are thinking he might be able to take the starting job from Sherels.

It is always hard to get a read on special teams players during practice because there isn’t as much contact as in games and no tackling. So when determining who the Vikings’ punt returner will be you have to wait to see the players perform in the preseason games.

That opportunity presented itself for the first time Sunday when the team played in the Hall of Fame Game. Both players had the opportunity to return punts and both did a relatively good job.

Sherels worked with the starters and got the first punt of the game, returning it for 24 yards. It was a good play, but it got overshadowed by Diggs’ 62-yard return later in the game.

“It was a very well-blocked play,” special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said of Diggs’ return. “We did a great job on the gunners. I thought we slowed up the interior enough early on and then we had some really nice finishes at the point of attack. But he made a great move right at the point of attack and then the cut he made around the 10-, 15-yard line was just, we don’t coach that. That’s all God-given talent.”

Diggs has been making a splash throughout camp and has impressed people with his ability to create big plays, originally as a receiver but now as a returner as well. The biggest thing he needed to work on was ball security, but that’s something that he has really focused on and was able to improve over the course of camp.

“He’s much more comfortable now than what he was in the spring and he’s worked very, very hard at it,” Priefer said. “He’ll come in and watch extra tape, he’ll come in and all three of the punt returners will come in and watch tape before my meeting at night and they’ll watch that close-up video we do with the kickoff and punt returners. So it’s a little bit of technique; it’s mainly experience but he has improved a lot since the spring.”

Experience in games is going to be the biggest thing for Diggs if he wants to earn the starting job as punt returner. It appeared his nerves got the best of him during the game when he called for a fair catch on his first return with no one around him.

The coaching staff is also going to want to make sure they see him a lot more in games because if they name him the starter they are going to want to be confident in the decision. At the same time, however, they want to still make sure Sherels gets a good amount of reps in case he ends up being the starter.

“I would like to continue to work Marcus in there because if he is going to be the guy we need to make sure he’s ready for the season as well,” Priefer said. “You can’t just roll them out there against San Fran and hope Marcus is the guy. So we’re going to continue to work the top three returners as we go forward.”

It sounds like the two players are going to be rotating with the first and second return units just to give each player an equal shot and it could go all the way through the preseason.

“When we go into a preseason game we normally don’t have a first team, second team,” Priefer said. “We have a punt return unit and of course we put the subs in there. When Marcus had the return I think it was mainly the first group, the starters. When Diggs had his nice return we had some of our backups in there but so did Pittsburg so it’s kind of all relative. I think going forward you’d like to mix Diggs in with the starters as well and get him some experience with them. But really for him it shouldn’t matter. He’s got to read his blocks and kind of go from there.”

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