Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. Also a published author, Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
Apologies if this comes across like the most Minnesota small talk thing to say but… can you believe it’s almost time for Vikings training camp? Somehow we’re just days away from players taking the field at TCO Performance in preparation for the 2021 season.
And this time around it will actually feel like a real training camp. Fans were not allowed at the facility last year due to COVID protocols and preseason games were canceled. Heck, camp didn’t even start until two weeks later than usual. When Week 1 rolled around, it didn’t have the same buzz that it would have with the normal ramp up to the opener -- especially with an empty US Bank Stadium against the Packers.
Getting back to normal should bring along the intrigue over minutiae that makes preseason great. Position battles that likely won’t matter in the grand scheme suddenly become points of fascination. Players end up catching the eye of the fan base and cutdown day turns dramatic, even if WR5 or TE4 won’t be turning the tide of the NFC North.
So with camp right around the corner, let’s talk about some of the Vikings storylines that won’t exactly dominate headlines on ESPN or NFL.com but will be of serious intrigue to Vikings fans.
For starters, who’s kicking?
A quick recap of the last few years of Vikings kicking. In 2016, the Vikings cut Blair Walsh, who never recovered from missing a 27-yard chip shot in the playoffs. Kai Forbath boots one of the franchise’s most clutch field goals in the 2017 postseason, only to be released in favor of rookie Daniel Carlson, who is axed after a meltdown in Green Bay. Dan Bailey is then good from 2018 through the midway point of 2020 and then suddenly loses it, causing the Vikings to have the league’s worst kicking last year. The Vikings release Bailey this offseason and sign a person named Greg Joseph and another person named Riley Patterson.
While Joseph does have previous NFL experience, the idea that the Vikings -- a team haunted by kickers -- are going to enter a pivotal season with someone who has booted all of 20 career kicks seems ludicrous. Will they sign someone? Wait until a veteran is cut after camp? Actually hold a competition between Joseph and Patterson and let the best man win?
Again, this one isn’t going to light the deepest fires of excitement for football fans around the nation but the Vikings need to solve their kicking problem. Last year they lost 27 points due to missed kicks, most in the NFL.
Here’s another: Who’s doing the punt returning?
The Vikings gained all of 69 yards punt returning last season. Not a very nice number. They were the NFL’s worst return team in yards per punt return. To make matters worse, they mixed in several fumbles, including one from Chad Beebe that nearly cost them a win against Carolina.
The Vikings drafted KJ Osborn to return punts in 2020 but he only totaled 27 yards on seven attempts and fumbled twice. That leaves the competition wide open. Will this year’s fifth-round pick Ihmir Smith-Marsette get his chance? Could fourth-rounder Kene Nwangwu, he of a 4.32 40-yard dash, get a shot? Could we be surprised by someone else emerging the way Marcus Sherels once did?
Punt returning isn’t at the forefront of most people’s minds but it was legitimately a detriment to the Vikings last year. They finished last in average offensive starting position and behind top punt returning teams by over 300 yards.
Outside of Osborn, there are several recent draft picks whose statuses depend on this year’s camp. The Vikings selected Baylor pass rusher James Lynch with the idea that he would move to defensive tackle and become a situational rusher. Even with injuries and struggles abound on the defensive line, Lynch only played a handful of snaps in his rookie campaign. Now Mike Zimmer’s defense has three new (and proven) defensive tackles in Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson and Sheldon Richardson. Opportunities will be limited for Lynch to prove his worth.
Guard Dru Samia struggled in limited duty last year. He’ll be fighting for a job. Same goes for cornerback Kris Boyd, a seventh-round pick in 2019. We might even see receiver Bisi Johnson defending his territory after sliding down the depth chart in 2020. Safety Josh Metellus will be battling for a spot after the Vikings picked Camryn Bynum this year. Backup QB Nate Stanley will be in competition with Jake Browning and Kellen Mond to stick around. Linebackers Cameron Smith and Troy Dye are vying for spots as well.
Speaking of which, who’s replacing Eric Wilson? How quickly we forget Wilson was very valuable as a fill-in and LB3 in 2018 and 2019 and had some moments as a starter in 2020. The Vikings signed former Bengal Nick Vigil and drafted Chazz Surratt in the third round, making for a crowded competition to play alongside Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr.
There are plenty more battles like this and opportunities across the board for unknown players to rise to the occasion and make the club.
Not that camp/preseason ever really lacked interest but sometimes you don’t realize how much you miss something until it’s gone. Having fans back to watch camp and preseason games will amplify the nuanced storylines that we all follow so closely throughout the summer.
And this year the Vikings gave everyone a lot to work with.