For years, the Vikings haven't made special teams a top priority. Those players who lined up on special teams did so primarily because they weren't starters on offense or defense. The team hasn't had a return specialist in years and haven't had a player lead the team in punt returns two years running for almost a decade.
But it would appear all that is starting to change. The Vikings have quietly made a bunch of improvements to their special teams and are looking at this facet of the game with much more of a critical eye under Brad Childress and his coaching staff.
"It's really important," special teams coordinator Paul Ferraro said of adding veterans to the special teams. "I think we've upgraded just about every position that's going to give us that three or four-phase situation, so I'm excited about where we're at right now."
One of the first things the team did was to create stability in the kicking game. The team signed kicker Ryan Longwell, punter Chris Kluwe and long snapper Cullen Loeffler to long-term contracts and, of their few 2007 free-agent signings, one was linebacker Vinny Ciurciu, who was signed primarily because of his prowess as a special teams tackler.
This offseason, the Vikings took even more steps to improving their special teams play, adding talent to go with players like Ciurciu and special teams ace Heath Farwell. The team singed LB Derrick Pope and safety Michael Boulware with the intention of having their primary duties to be as special teamers. When the team lost Mewelde Moore to free agency, they wasted little time in signing running back/return man Maurice Hicks. Hicks may be the first true return specialist the Vikings have had since David Palmer. Since then, the position has been a revolving door with little in the way of consistent production.
"He's proven himself as a kick returner," Ferraro said of Hicks. "I'm glad he's here. He had a couple big returns against us a year ago. The thing he really brings to the table that I think is going to really help us is his ability to play in those other three phases and cover and be able to help that way."
There was reason for concern about the Vikings special teams. While the kick coverage team ranked 12th in 2007 (up from 24th in Childress' first year as head coach), the punt coverage team ranked 23rd – one of the reasons for the free agent signings to shore up the special teams.
With the team confident in the abilities of Longwell and Kluwe at their respective positions and the concerted effort being made to improve the special teams by having "specialists" on the roster instead of a hodgepodge of players from different positions, the improvement to the Vikings is expected in all three facets of the game – offense, defensive and special teams. Bernard Berrian is expected to help the offense. Jared Allen and Madieu Williams are expected to improve the defense. But some believe the most dramatic improvement may come to the special teams unit, which could be special for the first time in years.
Positional Analysis: Special Teams
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