The Vikings signed running back Maurice Hicks in the offseason as an insurance policy for Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor after Mewelde Moore left for Pittsburgh, but Hicks' main contributions were expected to come on kickoff returns.
That didn't happen right away to start the season, as Hicks was inactive for the first two games with a foot injury. In Week 3, he was active but didn't return any kicks.
That changed last week, when Hicks returned four kickoffs for 110 yards – a 27.5-yard average per return, which is now the highest among the three players that have returned kickoffs for the team.
"I thought he gave us a little bit of a spark back there," special teams coordinator Paul Ferraro said. "You can tell he's back to 100 percent and that's what we wanted to make sure of before we put him back in that situation. He's got a good feel for it. He's done it a long time and we'll continue to look for progress there."
With Hicks inactive for the first game, last year's leading returner, Aundrae Allison, got first crack at the job. He averaged only 19.5 yards per return in the opener. Taylor was the main returner in Week 2 and averaged 31 yards on three returns, his best game of the season in that role. After seven returns this season, Taylor is averaging 25.9 yards per return.
The fact that Taylor and Hicks, the top two returners on the team this year, are both running backs might not be coincidence.
"Sometimes returners catch the ball, and don't have an understanding of it, but just kind of hit it and go. (Hicks) has a good feel for it, and again, being a running back is a plus. He has a good feel for what the intent of it is, but can also adjust to what we're getting down the field," Ferraro said.
The Vikings are ranked 26th in the league with an average starting position of the 23.4-yard line following kickoffs. Ferraro said it's a fine line between having patience as a returner and just keeping the return going north and south.
"With too much patience you're going to get whacked … but the guys that are best at it, and he's pretty good at it for sure, I look for improvement as we go here. You can do that once, but then you just have to go," Ferraro said. "You have to trust it and just get up the field. Anything past the 30-yard line we feel is a good return, but obviously we're looking to do better than that. We have some things this week where maybe we have an opportunity to hit some pretty good, so we'll see."
Opponents for the Saints have an average starting position of the 30.1-yard line.
Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell indicated that McKinnie would be the starter if everything went well with him in practice on Friday and Saturday, and Artis Hicks would return to a role of backing up at guard and tackle.
The Vikings have to make a roster move by 3 p.m. Monday to trim the active roster back to 53 players. They received a one-week exemption with McKinnie returning from his four-game suspension, but that will end before they play the Saints Monday night.
About four hours before the Vikings listed Williams as out, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said Williams was getting close to seeing action.
"His confidence is gaining and so is ours. He's really making progress. He's so close, and this very well could be the week that we get him back on the field," Frazier said.
Head coach Brad Childress said Henderson's toes were still "fat" with swelling on Friday.