Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marcet (15) attends NFL training camp on Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Egan, Minneapolis. (AP Photo / Bruce Cluckhon)
One position the Minnesota Vikings team would like to occupy is Punt Returner. There are a few Punt Returner options for the Vikings in 2022, but there is no obvious standout candidate.
In 2020, special teams were a nightmare for the Minnesota Vikings. Under the guidance of special team coordinator Ryan Ficen, the unit has made significant improvements in the 2021 season. Ficen was among the coaching staff’s mass departure after the dismissal of former head coach Mike Zimmer.
Dade Westbrook came on a one-year contract as a starting punt returner and had a tough season, a huge improvement over previous years. Westbrook returned 22 punt for an average of 8.3 yards and 183 yards per return. Although he is still a free agent, there is no indication of interest from the new government in bringing him back to another season.
Currently on the roster, the Vikings have four players who can fight for the Punt Returner. Let’s see who the four men will be.
In his rookie season, KJ Osborne’s only chance was at special teams, where he made the wrong kind of impression, especially when it came to his return.
Osborn averaged 3.9 yards per return, returning just seven yards for 27 yards. There were also some uncomfortable issues that led many to think he was a candidate to be dropped from the roster last season. He’s a pretty wide receiver, and he nailed down the WR3 spot on the roster.
He gave back some punt last season that Dead Westbrook did not play in two games, perhaps with the confidence of being an established player behind him. He returned four punt for 23 yards on average 5.75 yards per return – nothing special but a reasonably solid platform that could be built. At the moment he seems to be the most likely candidate.
Ehmer had 1,520 kick return yards and two touchdowns in college with the Smith-Mercedes Iowa Hawks. He started last season as a Vikings kick returnee, where he returned four kicks for a total of 83 yards in the first three games of the season. A toe injury slows his progress, and why Nawangu explodes at the scene, the kick return makes the job his own. Smith-Marcet Receipt Touchdown ends a strong season in a couple score offense. Under the new attacking mentality head coach he hopes to make it this season. Adding a job to Punt Returner will give him more opportunities to make an impact.
After his two touchdowns last season, I wonder why Nawangu will retain its place as a kickoff returner. He has never returned a punt, but he has shown that he has the ability to “run home” once the ball is in his hands. How safe will those hands be? Unlike returning the kick, Nawangu has to field most of the punt and put a lot of pressure on the catch points. Can he handle it? We don’t know because there is no evidence to look at but the ability to take the ball home. Must see him at a glance in the pre-season?
The Vikings brought a rookie with the experience of Punt Returning to pick Jalen Neyler in the 6th round. While with the Michigan State Spartans, he returned both kickoff and punt to college. He averaged six yards per return for eight yards for a total of 48 yards. Tough but remarkable numbers, but the experience factor could give him a major start. Nicknamed “Speedy”, the Vikings added another fast-paced businessman to their wide receiver corps with last season’s Rocky Ihmir Smith-Mercedes, Ken Nawangu and Dan Chisena. The Vikings have built a decent 4x100m relay team.
I like KJ Osborn to focus on being WR3 as he didn’t think about taking a position last season where he didn’t perform exceptionally well. Of the other three, this should be a curious fight, if any.
Smith-Marseille and Nawangwe have a year of experience with the Vikings, and Naylor has some punt return experience at college. It will be interesting to see how head coach Kevin O’Connell and special team coordinator Matt Daniels decide to go.