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Monday Morning Mailbag: Special Teams Battles & Intrigue Around Rookie Smith-Marsette

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I figure most people don't evaluate special teams except the ball handlers (kickers included) and perhaps the guys who are the first ones down the field. Can you say anything about the impact of the new special teams coach? Do we know how he feels about going for 2-point conversions? And how many guys who were regulars on special teams have to be replaced? How does that compare to other years?

— Craig from Boston

We'll start this week with everyone's favorite topic — special teams — which should be a heavy point of emphasis as the Vikings get set to begin Organized Team Activity practices this week.

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer made it quite clear during rookie minicamp that he'll be looking for major improvement in that phase under new Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken.

"Well, we have to improve a lot of special teams," Zimmer said. "We weren't very good last year in that area, and part of it is we've got to return the ball better on punts, we've got to return better on kicks, we have to cover better, we have to punt the ball better.

"All those things are a factor, so we're putting a major, major emphasis on trying to improve that area of the football team," Zimmer added.

I can tell you that from my interactions with Ficken, he is absolutely fired up to finally be in charge of his own unit. As a refresher, Ficken has been with the organization for 14 seasons, and spent the past eight years as the Vikings assistant special teams coordinator.

View photos of Vikings players at practice during rookie minicamp on May 15.

I expect him to bring high energy and passion to the job, along with perhaps some of his own ideas that he has developed from working with other coaches over the years. Even as Zimmer enters his eighth season, he still wants to field a tough-minded team that plays strong defense and can change the game on special teams, and it will be up to Ficken to oversee a bounce-back effort from a year ago.

We'll have to see what Ficken's plan is on 2-point conversions going forward, but Zimmer is likely the decision-maker in those. Vikings Offensive Coordinator Klint Kubiak may have some input as well.

As for key special teams players that need to be replaced, one could say the Vikings have missed a heavier workload from Anthony Harris and Eric Wilson over the past couple of seasons. Their roles on special teams were reduced as their involvement on defense increased. That's why it's so important to continue a pipeline of special teamers.

And looking ahead to camp battles in that phase, they will take place all across the roster, especially with the trio of specialists.

Greg Joseph and Riley Patterson are set to have a kicking competition, while Zach Von Rosenberg will look to challenge Britton Colquitt at punter. There's even another long snapper battle with Andrew DePaola and Turner Bernard.

And there could be some fresh faces at returner, too, especially since the Vikings attacked that area on Day 3 of the draft with Kene Nwangwu and Ihmir Smith-Marsette.

All in all, special teams will be at the top of the list in terms of key storylines as we approach the 2021 season. And if that phase rebounds and plays well under Ficken, that could greatly boost Minnesota's chances of getting into the playoffs.

I am a season-ticket holder and want to know if we will be able to go to games. Also, is there going to need to be proof of a COVID vaccine and mask wearing?

— Greg Reed

Greg asks the question that most of you likely have on the mind. But as of this writing, there aren't many concrete answers.

Do the Vikings hope to have a packed and raucous U.S. Bank Stadium this fall? 100 percent. (And the team likely needs it, too, given the immense home-field advantage it brings).

The team remains optimistic that it will be able to host sellout crowds for the two August preseason contests and the Sept. 26 home opener against Seattle, and the recent announcement by Gov. Tim Walz certainly brings that much closer to reality.

At this point, it is too early to say what game-day protocols and procedures will be in place. U.S. Bank Stadium falls under the jurisdiction of the State of Minnesota and the City of Minneapolis, and the Vikings will abide by protocols set by the State, City and the NFL.

You can bet that as soon as those determinations are made, the team will get the word out quickly and effectively.

Do you see us ranking in top five on offense and defense this year?

— Warren W.

A good question from Warren as the calendar is about to flip to June, and minds start wandering to the fall.

At this point, I'd give the offense a higher chance of being in that upper tier than the defense.

Why? Although the Vikings have a new OC in Kubiak, there wasn't much turnover at key positions. Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson and Irv Smith, Jr., are all back in what should be a similar offense.

And while names such as Riley Reiff and Kyle Rudolph are no longer here, the expectation is that rookie Christian Darrisaw and Smith (along with Tyler Conklin) fill those roles.

The Vikings offense was pretty good in 2020, ranking 11th with 26.9 points per game in a season in which scoring was up across the board. Another 3.3 points per game would have landed Minnesota in the top five. The Vikings, by the way, were just 6-for-12 (50 percent) on field goals of 40 or more yards last season, compared to the 85-percent (17-for-20) success rate by opponents.

Minnesota's defense, meanwhile, ranked 29th in 2020 with 29.7 points allowed per game. Miami and New Orleans tied for fifth at 21.1 points allowed per game, FYI, so the Vikings defense has a bit of a jump to get into the top five.

Yes, the Vikings were annihilated by injuries in 2020. Danielle Hunter didn't play a single snap, Anthony Barr was on the field for 94 plays and Eric Kendricks missed the final third of the season. Michael Pierce opted out, Cameron Dantzler was banged up at times, and Cam Smith and Kenny Willekes didn't play at all.

Throw in an odd COVID season, a virtual offseason and lots of rookies on the field, and the 2020 output was about as rough as anyone could ever predict for a Zimmer-led unit.

Minnesota went all-in on defense this offseason, adding numerous veterans to try and revamp that unit with Patrick Peterson, Dalvin Tomlinson, Mackensie Alexander and Xavier Woods. Add in returning players — both those like Hunter and Pierce who missed time, and those like Harrison Smith who didn't — are many believe the Vikings are poised to be the defense that we've come to expect in recent years.

Maybe that doesn't equate to a top-5 unit? But I'd argue that if the Vikings offense is in that tier, and the defense is in the top third of the league, then Minnesota will be a team that many won't want to face late in the season as the playoffs near.

View photos of the Vikings 2021 coaching staff.

It surely doesn't seem that long ago that I remember making the trip to Mankato for training camp to check out the rookies and new additions to the team. Upon returning home in Iowa, fellow fans asked who impressed me at camp? My response, "There's this kid at WR, Stefon Diggs. He catches everything, a natural at pulling in the pigskin." This is pretty premature … but when I saw video of Ihmir Smith-Marsette at the rookie minicamp, all I could think was, "Dang, he's so natural at catching the ball!" I'm probably nuts, but I think this kid could play a huge role in our offense going forward. Your thoughts on the under-utilized Iowa wide receiver?

— Dale Kruse

Dale closes us out with an inquiry about Smith-Marsette, who was the 157th overall pick in the fifth round in the draft.

In full disclosure, I have not seen the former Iowa standout on the field yet with my own eyes. (I missed rookie minicamp because of my wedding).

But Smith-Marsette was asked earlier this month about his body control and fluidness that stood out on film from his time with the Hawkeyes.

"I played multiple sports growing up," Smith-Marsette said. "Then finishing off with water polo and track — being a hurdler you have to have tremendous body control when you're approaching an obstacle and being in control of your environment so you can move the way you want to when you need to.

"It's a praise to everything I've done in life and all the sports I've played and just being able to learn different things and how to use your body in different ways," Smith-Marsette added. "I feel like it's a shout-out to everything I've done in life, being able to focus in when it's that time and excel in the moment."

As I mentioned above, Smith-Marsette will certainly be in the mix for a returner spot on special teams. But he'll likely also have the chance to compete with Chad Beebe and Bisi Johnson for reps at wide receiver behind Thielen and Jefferson.

Perhaps his diverse background of sports helps get him on the field as a rookie. He might not make the immediate impact that Diggs did back in 2015, but Minnesota doesn't need him to be a star right away.

We should get a better look at Smith-Marsette and other rookies, as well as the veterans who are participating in the voluntary offseason practices.

Follow along with plenty of coverage on Vikings.com in the coming weeks.

View photos of Iowa WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette who was selected in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

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