EAGAN, Minn. — It seemed the Vikings special teams really could go nowhere but up after an overall putrid performance in 2020.
They did that and more during the 2021 campaign after promoting longtime assistant Ryan Ficken to the special teams coordinator position.
Ficken saw success in his first season overseeing the Vikings special teams unit, and the team added a few players to help, as well.
Perhaps the most notable addition was former Iowa State Cyclones standout Kene Nwangwu, whom the Vikings tabbed in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft. We'll get deeper into Nwangwu's performance below, but long story short? The youngster added speed and a spark to Minnesota's kick return game.
After using K.J. Osborn solely on the special teams last season, the Vikings leaned on Osborn for a much heavier role in the offense and pivoted to Dede Westbrook – an offseason free-agent addition – as the team's primary punt returner.
Greg Joseph and Riley Patterson competed throughout training camp for the Vikings kicker role, and Joseph earned the job for the season. He certainly helped increase Minnesota's success on field goals after a rough ending with Dan Bailey last year.
Things got a bit interesting in the punting game.
The Vikings headed into the season with veteran punter Britton Colquitt but transitioned in early September, signing Australian punter Jordan Berry and opting to release Colquitt.
Ficken described moving on from Colquitt as a "very difficult decision."
"But as an organization, we just felt Jordan was a very talented punter that was on the street. He's got big upside with a strong leg," Ficken said. "He's had success in very difficult venues outside, especially, obviously Pittsburgh, and we just saw it as an opportunity to go ahead and continue to improve in every facet of this football team."
The Vikings averaged 46.5 yards per punt, which ranked 13th, compared to ranking 20th last season with 45.1 yards per punt. Berry dropped 26 of 78 punts inside the 20-yard line for Minnesota. In 2020, Colquitt had 11 punts (of 54) inside the 20.
Looking back over his first campaign as special teams coordinator, Ficken said he was "blessed" with a talented Vikings roster.
"Those guys really played hard, and I was really happy and proud," Ficken said. "I thought they did a lot of good things, a lot of things that we obviously need to improve on."
Here's a deeper look at where the Vikings had successes in 2021 and two of their biggest priorities to fix going forward in 2022.
3 strong special teams stats in 2021:
1. Nwangwu to the rescue
Minnesota was, at most, mediocre in kick return last season.
The Vikings averaged 21.9 yards per kickoff return in 2020, which tied for 16th in the league. Fine, but certainly not great.
Enter Nwangwu. The Vikings drafted him with the 119th overall pick, and while he didn't see much action at running back in his debut season, Nwangwu immediately upgraded Minnesota's special teams unit.
Nwangwu helped the Vikings average 26.5 yards per kickoff return, which ranked second-best in the NFL behind only the Jets. The rookie speedster also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, taking it to the house in Week 9 at Baltimore and Week 12 at San Francisco.
2. Improvement in FG percentage
It's no secret the Vikings kicking game in 2020 was abysmal.
Bailey struggled mightily for Minnesota last season, and the team finished last in the NFL with a 68.2-percent success rate on field goals.
Joseph performed solidly for Minnesota throughout the 2021 campaign. Joseph made 86.5 percent of his field goal attempts, including game-winners against the Lions and Packers.
Joseph certainly improved the Vikings kicking game from 2020, but it's worth noting at least that he did miss a 37-yard attempt in Week 2 that would have lifted Minnesota over Arizona.
3. Feelin' good from 50-plus
It's probably fair to say that most teams would prefer not to attempt field goals from 50-plus yards out, but sometimes a game situation necessitates going for the longer kick.
The Vikings in 2021 attempted nine field goals of distances at least 50 yards or more, and Joseph knocked through seven of them. Included in those boots was a 54-yard walk-off field goal to help Minnesota defeat Green Bay in Week 11.
The seven makes from 50-plus tied for third in the NFL in 2021 and rank second in franchise history.
In 2020, the Vikings were just 2-for-5 on field goal attempts that were 50 yards or longer.
2 stats that need to improve in 2022:
1. Punt returns still lacking
While the Vikings improved significantly on kickoff return, their punt returns still left plenty wanting.
Minnesota averaged 7.9 yards per punt return in 2021, which is a pretty big step up from 2020's 4.3-yard average that ranked dead last in the league. The Vikings 2021 average still was 22nd in the NFL, though, and leaves room to improve.
Part of the problem this past season was inconsistency in the role. The Vikings initially tabbed free agent addition Westbrook, and he largely handled the responsibilities. Westbrook returned 22 punts, averaging 8.3 yards per return.
Westbrook missed two games, though, and Minnesota relied on Osborn, who held the role as a rookie in 2020. Osborn impressed as a receiver for the Vikings but averaged just 5.8 yards on four punt returns for special teams.
2. Pick up the PATs
Here's another example of a stat that improved from 2020 but still can improve.
We're in an era of the NFL where extra points are no longer considered "gimmes" thanks to the rule change that shifted them from a 20-yard kick to a 33-yarder. They still are relied on by offenses to help build momentum after touchdowns.
After logging an 86.0 percent success rate on PATs in 2020, the Vikings bumped that number up only to 90 percent in 2021, which ranked 24th in the league. Especially in a season where nearly ever game came down to the wire, Minnesota couldn't afford to miss any opportunity to put points on the board.