With the decision-makers for the Minnesota Vikings in Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine, the countdown has begun for free agency, which officially opens on Thursday.
As it pertains to the Vikings’ special teams, what a difference a year makes. Blair Walsh was the team’s kicker and Jeff Locke was the punter. Walsh was released at midseason and Locke is set to become an unrestricted free agent, leading to speculation that the Vikings will have a new kicker and punter heading into 2017.
The team signed kicker Kai Forbath. In seven games, he made all 15 of his field goal attempts, but missed three of 14 extra points, finishing with 56 points in those seven games.
He didn’t do anything to lose his job, but he isn’t guaranteed a starting job. The same goes for Locke, who has been allowed to hit free agency without an offer on the table, at least one that is public.
Given the uncertainty at both positions, the Vikings’ intent is unclear for 2017. But, given Mike Zimmer’s frustration with kickers, he may be more inclined to push for a veteran at both the kicking and punting positions – whether than means bringing back Forbath and Locke or going to outside free agency.
If the Vikings do look outside the organization, here are the top-of-mind players who will likely be on their free-agent radar if the price is right.
Greg Zuerlein – Known as “Greg the Leg,” he was drafted the same season as Walsh and spent five seasons with the Rams. Like Walsh, he has a strong leg and is consistently among the league leaders in touchback percentage, but field goals have been a problem. He has made less than 80 percent of his career field goals and there are no guarantees that he will re-sign with the Rams and could be had for a relatively reasonable price.
Steven Hauschka – A player who had a cup of coffee with the Vikings before signing on with Seattle. He has played the last six years with the Seahawks and has scored 532 points in the last four seasons. He has made 87 percent of his career field goals, but missed 10 extra points in the last two seasons. As a result, the Seahawks signed Walsh, likely making Hauschka available when free agency begins, despite Seahawks GM John Scheider saying the Walsh signing doesn’t necessarily mean Hauschka is out.
Robbie Gould – After spending 11 seasons with the Bears, he signed with the Giants shortly before the Vikings released Walsh. In 10 games, he only attempted 10 field goals for New York in 10 games, but made them all. He has been a consistent kicker who was able to make 86 percent of his field goals despite the tricky winds of Soldier Field. He’s a veteran familiar to the Vikings who could likely be had at the veteran minimum.
Connor Barth – He has bounced around with Kansas City, Tampa Bay (twice), Denver and Chicago and, while he hasn’t been dominant, he has consistently found work. However, it’s unlikely he would be able to be selected over Forbath given his lack of dominance and nomadic tendencies over the last four years.
Shane Lechler – A 17-year veteran who has averaged 47.5 yards a punt for his career, he hasn’t lost much in translation over the years. After spending 13 years in Oakland, his punting average in four seasons in Houston was 47.6, 46.3, 47.3 and 47.5 yards – four yards longer per punt than Locke. His career net average of 41.4 yards is almost three yards longer than Locke. He turns 41 in August, which could be a concern.
Bryan Anger – In five seasons with Jacksonville and Tampa Bay, he has averaged 46.7 yards a punt and has a net average just shy of 42 yards. Potentially looking for his third team in three years, his price tag shouldn’t be too high despite his production.
The Vikings weren’t satisfied with their special teams last year and change may be coming. How they address those changes isn’t set yet, but the one thing that appears certain is that competition is going to take place at training camp like it hasn’t in the last five years.