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Are Vikings Returners The Best In The League?

Special teams are often times the most overlooked facet in the game of football. So much attention is paid to the offensive side of the game and then a fair amount gets directed to the defense as well. But aren’t special teams units simply your first line of offense (kick returns) or your first line of defense (kick coverage)?
Image courtesy of Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
It’s been called “the down before first down” by special teams coordinators around the league for years. Of all the people inside a professional football complex, they’re the ones who will inherently have the greatest appreciation for the role that special teams plays for a team on a weekly basis.

Then there’s the special teams players themselves. Their appreciation for this part of the game is an interesting one. You’re not sure if they truly enjoy this violent part of the game or if they just understand that giving their all on special teams is the best way for them to make the roster. Still, not everybody is willing to run full speed into an opponent who is traveling at an equally accelerated pace. Fewer still are comfortable staring up into the sky at a falling ball while opponents come barreling down the field with the sole intent to maim.

Say what you will about the off the field issues that have snuck up on Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, but on the sidelines he is truly one of the best in the league at what he does. His father Chuck Priefer was also a special teams coach so running lanes, angles and wedges have basically been in his blood from the beginning.

While Priefer mans the helm and leads the unit as a whole, he has also been blessed with a couple very talented return men who make his job a little easier. Heading into a season where Priefer will be suspended for three games, these players, their skills and their discipline will be even more important to the Vikings overall success.

Here is how the return game is shaping up for the Vikings heading towards the regular season…

KICK RETURN
Cordarrelle Patterson (backed up by Marcus Sherels and Jarius Wright)

For players with 20 or more returns in 2013, Cordarrelle Patterson was the cream of the crop across the league. Averaging 32.4 yards per return, CP led the grouping in that category and led the league with 2 kickoffs returned for touchdowns including an NFL record 109 yard return against the Green Bay Packers in Week 7. Cordarrelle’s 1,393 return yards set a franchise record and finished only behind Devin Hester’s 1,426 yards in 2013.

Similar to Hester, but unlike him in other ways, Patterson’s talents are a rare mix that make him a lethal weapon on the football field.

“[He’s got] size, speed, strength, he’s got great quickness and, like a lot of great returners in this league, he’s go great vision,” Mike Priefer said on Thursday after practice. “I’ve coached some guys that have the size and speed before and didn’t have good vision, they just kind of ran into blocks and stuff, but he has an innate ability to see things right before they happen and he’s very good at that.”

To date this preseason, Patterson has yet to return a kickoff but is still the team’s number one option returning kicks in the regular season. Thursday afternoon Coach Priefer shared his excitement to get Cordarrelle on the field for kickoffs this Saturday in Kansas City.

Asked if he wanted to see Cordarrelle shake some of the rust off this weekend Priefer said, “That’s mainly it. I don’t need to see anything from him but you’re right. I think it’s one of those things that if you only do it in practice the tempo isn’t the same, the timing is not quite the same and a lot of our returns are based off of timing. Getting him out there for a rep or two will help him get ready for St. Louis.”

The situation behind the starter…
Behind Patterson is a familiar bunch. Punt returner Marcus Sherels takes almost all of the reps that Patterson does not, a situation that may creep up on the Vikings as Patterson’s role within the offense is sure to increase.

PUNT RETURN
Marcus Sherels (backed up by Adam Thielen and Jarius Wright)

On the surface it seems to be similar, but in reality the punt return game is a completely different beast from the kick return. Returning punts requires a mix of bravery, intelligence, toughness and grit. You have to know when to take a fair catch, when to fake a catch and how to take a hit.

Minnesota’s own Marcus Sherels mans the punt return game for the Vikings and if 2013 was any indication, he does it quite well!

Averaging 15.2 yards per return with a return for touchdown last season, Sherels has firmly supplanted himself as one of the better returners in the league.

“He’s not going to surprise anybody this year,” Priefer acknowledged. “We’re going to be more aggressive with him this year. He’s a very sound, disciplined returner.”

While Patterson is tall, fast and strong, Sherels approaches returns with a different set of skills. Standing at 5’10” Marcus uses the mental part of the return game to his advantage.

“He’s got great quickness and he’s got great courage,” Priefer said of Sherels. “I think as a punt returner you have to have great courage, especially as a guy that is not as big as some of the other guys out there. Marcus has got great speed and great quickness and he’s gotten better over the last three years of seeing the openings and getting the timing down and getting that great vision.”

The situation behind the starter…
In the past, Sherels has been backed up by third year wide receiver Jarius Wright. While the depth chart still technically leans on Wright as the number two punt returner, the playing time through the first two preseason games speaks otherwise. Taking almost all of the second-team punt return reps this preseason has been wide receiver Adam Thielen who is making a legitimate push to make the 53-man roster this year.


Looking at the bigger picture for the Vikings return game as a whole, it would be hard for me to look around the league and find a duo that would top it. The interesting part this season will be paying attention to how the team will utilize Cordarrelle Patterson in his expanded offensive role. However they choose to approach it, rest assured that "the down before first down" will be setting the Vikings up nice and pretty again this season!


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4 Comments

Brock Beauchamp
Aug 22 2014 02:06 PM

It's so easy to overlook kick returners but over the course of a season, 4-5 extra yards on returns really add up.

 

With that said, aren't kick returners one of the most volatile performers in the league? Meaning that the performance of a KR can fluctuate wildly from season to season.

I think Punt Returners are really hard to judge. Ability to break one is important, but ability to know when to fair catch versus try to return is probably even more important over the course of the year.

Not sure they are the best but when you intentionally kick away or squib kick to prevent the big return you definitely need to be in the conversation.  Hard not to leave Patterson back there just for field position alone.

 

Sherels is the little engine that could.  NOBODY gives him a chance and he always comes through.  Sherels is a great example of a guy who has worked his A off to become the player that he is.  I don't believe he is the most naturally gifted athlete at the position but hard work has paid off.  Marcus had a great season for us last year.

It will be interesting to see how Sherels reacts this year. For once in his career there are people nipping at his ankles for the starting role rather than the other way around!


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