With Vikings training camp getting underway on Wednesday, it's time to go through all of the team's notable position battles to watch on offense, defense, and special teams. These can range from two players competing for a starting spot to a wide group of players hoping to earn a key backup job.
We've already done the two big ones:
- Offensive battles highlighted by WR3, rookies on O-line
- Intriguing defensive battles at cornerback, defensive end
But don't neglect the importance of special teams, which probably cost the Vikings a playoff berth last year. They were horrific in every area of that phase: kicking, punting, returning, coverage, field position, you name it. Enter new coordinator Ryan Ficken, two new kickers competing for a crucially important job, and some fresh blood looking to bring a spark to the return game.
The big one
Kicker: Greg Joseph vs. Riley Patterson
After Dan Bailey imploded down the stretch last year, the Vikings knew they needed to do something different at kicker. So they signed journeyman kicker Greg Joseph in February, released Bailey a month later, and picked up one of the top available college kickers in undrafted free agent Riley Patterson. So far, Joseph has surged ahead in the competition at a position that has haunted the Vikings for decades, mostly because he's been the only one available. The 27-year-old — who has made 18 of 21 field goals and 43 of 47 extra point attempts in his NFL career — had a strong offseason while Patterson dealt with some injury issues.
Patterson is on the Active/PUP list to start training camp but should be ready to go "shortly," Rick Spielman said on Tuesday. The Memphis product made just 77 percent of his FGAs in college, but he has a big leg and connected on 23 of 25 attempts in 2019. Don't count out the possibility of the Vikings bringing in another kicker at some point in camp, particularly if Joseph struggles at all or Patterson's injuries linger.
"Just like at every position, we want to try to create as much competition as possible," Spielman said when discussing the kicker situation. "We’ll monitor that, just like we do every other team’s roster as we go through this process through training camp and the preseason."
Stephen Gostkowski, Zane Gonzalez, Roberto Aguayo, Brett Maher, and, yes, Bailey, are among the kickers still available as free agents.
Kick returner: Ihmir Smith-Marsette vs. Kene Nwangwu
Incumbents K.J. Osborn and Ameer Abdullah will be involved in this competition, but neither had much success last year and the Vikings drafted a couple talented kick returners for a reason. Plus, both Osborn and Abdullah are on the roster bubble and might be expendable. I expect that this will come down to an Iowa Hawkeye and an Iowa State Cyclone. Smith-Marsette averaged 28.7 yards per return in college with two touchdowns and is very shifty in the open field. Nwangwu's career stats aren't quite as good (26.8 average and one TD), but he had a much better 2020 as a returner and is slightly faster than ISM (4.32 40-yard dash vs. 4.43). Both guys are explosive and have tons of experience returning kicks. They'll each get their chance to impress in training camp and the preseason.
After the signing of Dede Westbrook, I don't think there's any competition at punt returner. With how bad Osborn and Chad Beebe were in that department last year, Westbrook should be handed that job from Day 1.
Long snapper: Andrew DePaola vs. Turner Bernard
Long snappers are people too! The Vikings drafted Austin Cutting in the seventh round two years ago, but he struggled last year and wound up losing his job to DePaola. The 34-year-old DePaola will look to hold off Bernard, a 22-year-old UDFA from San Diego State. That's all I've got for this one.
Punter Britton Colquitt doesn't have any competition for his job for now.
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