View the best special teams photos from the 2021 season shot by Vikings photographers.
EAGAN, Minn. — What a turnaround for Minnesota's special teams in 2021.
That unit was one of the league's most suspect in 2020, and staff changes led to Ryan Ficken becoming the Vikings first-year special teams coordinator in 2021.
Ficken helped stabilize — and improve — that phase as a strength for Minnesota.
The Vikings finished 15th in longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin's annual special teams rankings, which are among the most-respected around the league.
And analytics website Pro Football Focus gave Minnesota a 90.0 overall grade on special teams in 2021, which ranked 10th overall.
Kene Nwangwu established himself as a dynamic returner, as the rookie was recently named to the All-NFC Team by the Professional Football Writers of America (PFWA).
Dede Westbrook was the Vikings primary punt returner in 2021, his first season in Minnesota.
Greg Joseph also saw success in his first season as the Vikings kicker, making 33 of 38 field goals, good for an 86.8-percent success rate.
Minnesota added punter Jordan Berry to the roster shortly before the 2021 season began. The veteran averaged 46.5 yards per punt with a long of 64 yards. After joining Minnesota late in 2020, Andrew DePaola was in Purple for his first full season as a Viking.
Ficken's group cut down on the penalties from a year ago and also improved in coverage, too. (It's worth noting that Minnesota did allow a punt return for a score in Week 16).
But overall, there were plenty of bright spots this past season.
And a unit that was a liability in 2020 turned into one of the Vikings biggest strengths in 2021.
Notable Number: 7
Joseph was mostly solid in his first year in Minnesota, and impressed with his range on multiple occasions.
In fact, his seven successful field goals of 50-plus yards were the second-most in a single season in franchise history.
Here's a list on his lengthy kicks:
51 yards – Week 11 vs. Packers and Week 17 at Packers
52 yards – Week 2 at Cardinals (twice),
53 yards – Week 1 at Bengals
54 yards – Week 5 vs. Lions (game winner)
55 yards – Week 5 vs. Lions
Overall, Joseph made seven of his nine attempts from 50-plus yards.
Few things in the NFL top the exhilaration of winning on the game's final play.
The Vikings did that three times in 2021, with Joseph providing the walk-off winner on two of those occasions.
Joseph's first game-winner was about as clutch as they come, as he nailed a 54-yard field goal on the final play of regulation in Week 5 against the Lions. His lengthy kick helped Minnesota to a wild 19-17 win.
The Vikings kicker also came up big at home against the Packers in Week 11, although this walk-off winner was roughly half the distance of his first one.
Minnesota and Green Bay engaged in a back-and-forth affair that culminated with Joseph hitting a 29-yard field goal to seal a 34-31 win.
Made 33 of 38 field goals (86.8 percent) with a long of 55 yards; made 36 of 40 extra points (90 percent); led Vikings with 135 total points; played 172 snaps on special teams
Averaged 46.5 yards per punt on 78 attempts with a net average of 40.8; had one punt blocked; landed 26 punts inside an opponent's 20-yard line; had three punts result in touchbacks; played 160 snaps on special teams
Played 160 snaps on special teams; did not have any errant snaps
Recorded 579 yards on 18 kickoff returns (32.3 yards per attempt) with a long of 99 yards; only player in NFL with two kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2021; recorded one rush for nine yards on a successful fake punt; played 79 snaps on special teams
Recorded 183 yards on 22 punt returns (8.3 yards per attempt) with a long of 45 yards; played 57 snaps on special teams
Recorded 162 yards on seven kickoff returns (23.1 yards per attempt) with a long of 45 yards; played 44 snaps on special teams
Recorded 23 yards on four punt returns (5.8 yards per attempt) with a long of 11 yards; played 35 snaps on special teams
Recorded 83 yards on four kickoff returns (20.8 yards per attempt) with a long of 24 yards; played 15 snaps on special teams
Recorded 18 yards on one kickoff return (18.0 yards per attempt); played 46 snaps on special teams
Recorded seven yards on one kickoff return (7.0 yards per attempt); played 10 snaps on special teams
Recorded one kickoff return for zero yards; played 298 snaps on special teams
Led Vikings with 342 snaps on special teams
Played 326 snaps on special teams
C.J. Ham, Kris Boyd, Camryn Bynum, Ryan Connelly and Dan Chisena
Each played 200-plus snaps on special teams
The highest high(s)
1. The Vikings kickoff return unit had been stuck in the doldrums since 2016, which was the last time that unit had found the end zone.
Nwangwu changed that narrative in a big way in 2021, taking not one, but two, kickoffs back to the house for points.
His first one came in Week 9 at Baltimore to open the second half, as he raced 98 yards down the right sideline to give the Vikings some life.
He was back at it again in Week 12, as his 99-yard kickoff return for a score against San Francisco helped Minnesota hang around in that game.
And although both of Nwangwu's scores came in losses, he cemented himself as a playmaker and will be a player to watch going forward.
The lowest low(s)
1. The Vikings, although much improved in 2021, were not perfect.
That showed up in Week 6 in Carolina when the Panthers blocked a punt and returned it four yards for a score.
Minnesota was able to overcome that miscue and win in overtime to get to 3-3 on the season.
But the Vikings allowed a punt return for a score against the Rams in Week 16 that proved costly. Minnesota ended up losing 30-23 to Los Angeles, as its playoff hopes took a hit in a disappointing home loss.
2 pressing questions for 2022
1.Will Minnesota's three main specialists be back?
Kwesi Adofo-Mensah in the Vikings new general manager, and his first priority in finding Minnesota's next head coach.
Roster construction begins after that, and Joseph, Berry and DePaola will all be in focus.
Joseph is an exclusive rights free agent in 2022, which makes his return more probable than if he was an unrestricted free agent. Berry is scheduled to become a free agent, and DePaola is under contract.
The Vikings have shuffled through these three positions in recent years and could use some stability going forward.
The decision to bring them all back could also hinge on the status of Ficken, who just completed his 15th season with the organization.
2.Can Nwangwu do it again?
Long gone were the days of grabbing a snack during the kickoff, as Nwangwu's returns became must-see viewing in the second half of the Vikings season.
The speedster broke off two for touchdowns, and was this close to scoring at least two or three other times as a rookie.
Perhaps Nwangwu gets more involved in Minnesota's offense going forward, but there will certainly be an expectation for him as the kick returner again — if teams are willing to give him the chance.
There were only eight total kickoff returns for scores in 2021 and Nwangwu had a quarter of them. Simply put, he can be a dangerous and special weapon when given the chance.