With Verizon Vikings Training Camp set to open next week (Friday, July 26 is the first scheduled public practice open to the public), the Vikings.com writing staff is doing a Training Camp Primer series this week to take deeper looks at offseason topics that likely will be answered in camp practices and the preseason.
Friday: Special Teams to Feature Competitions for Positions & Roster Spots
EAGAN, Minn. – In Marwan Maalouf’s first training camp overseeing the Vikings special teams, he’ll have plenty to evaluate.
Maalouf was hired in February as the new Vikings Special Teams Coordinator, and he brings with him 14 years of NFL coaching experience.
Minnesota returned kicker Dan Bailey, who signed with the Vikings after Week 2 last season.
Bailey, who missed four games in 2017 due to injury, was thrown into the proverbial fire in Minnesota but held his own. He finished the season 21 of 28 on field goal attempts and was 30-for-31 on PAT (point-after-touchdown) attempts.
Bailey now has had an entire offseason with the Vikings, a luxury he certainly won’t take for granted. He explained during voluntary Organized Team Activities that being able get as many reps as possible with the other specialists is invaluable.
“Let’s just say the snap, hold and kick, you’ve got three people trying to do something in under 1.3 seconds,” Bailey said, emphasizing the preciseness of the job. “Basketball’s got the alley-oop, baseball’s got the double play, but it’s kind of rare that you’re getting three people to do something in that amount of time. Just getting that timing down and working together is great.
“Last year, I thought we did OK for the situation we were in, and we feel like the last month of the season, probably December on, we really were kind of getting in the groove and working well,” he added. “The main thing is just carrying that over and then obviously improving. So yeah, having this time to do that is awesome.”
For Maalouf, first impressions of Bailey have been nothing but positive. He called the 31-year-old “a good pro” and said he was pleased with the way Bailey performed throughout OTAs and minicamp.
“[He] takes his craft seriously, which is important,” Maalouf said. “I think it’s always good to have a good vet back there.”
Bailey jelled last season with long snapper Kevin McDermott and punter Matt Wile, both of whom also remain on the Vikings roster.
Wile played the entire 2018 campaign with Minnesota but shares Bailey’s gratitude for offseason workouts with teammates, being that the Vikings didn’t bring Wile on until Sept. 2 after releasing Ryan Quigley during roster cut-downs.
The Vikings punted 72 times last season, and Wile’s average of 41.5 net yards per boot ranked 10th in the NFL. He landed 27 punts inside the 20, and two of his punts went for touchbacks. Thirty-one of his punts were returned, which tied for ninth-most in the league, and 19 were fair-caught.
Take a look back at some classic pictures from Vikings Training Camp in Mankato and TCO Performance Center through the years.
Maalouf told Twin Cities media members that Wile is improving his craft.
“The familiarity he’s had with holding for Dan is good,” Maalouf said. “When he came to us last year, I wasn’t here, but he didn’t have the preseason. He didn’t have OTA’s. He didn’t have all those reps, so those reps are going to help out. That’ll be a big positive for him.”
McDermott is the most-established specialist in the Vikings locker room but looks to face some competition this summer.
Minnesota used its 12th and final draft pick on Air Force long snapper Austin Cutting, who participated in the Vikings rookie minicamp, OTAs and minicamp.
Maalouf was asked during a media session what he’s looking for in the long snapper battle.
“They’re here to snap the ball. That’s first and foremost, and both those guys can, which is great,” Maalouf said. “We’ve got to take it a step further and now pretty much put them in situations where they have to set, they have to block.”
Maalouf said McDermott and Cutting both had “a ton of different looks” thrown at them throughout the offseason programming.
“When the so-called ‘bullets are flying,’ that’s really when the guys can react and you can figure out which one is going to separate [himself],” Maalouf said. “It’s a really good competition right now, and I’m happy to have both of those guys.
“They’re both good pros. I think we might have two NFL snappers,” he added. “That’s a good problem to have. I’ve had that at other times where we’ve had two NFL kickers or two punters, so I think that will end up solving itself in the long run.”
Beyond the specialist positions, returner roles could be there for the taking.
This season will mark the first since 2011 that the Vikings punt returner will not be named Marcus Sherels. The native of Rochester, Minnesota, signed with the Saints in free agency and left the special teams spot vacant.
Chad Beebe, who signed with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent last year, took a number of reps at punt returner during the team’s spring practices and could be the frontrunner for the job. Newcomer Jordan Taylor, previously with the Broncos, also has experience there.
Beebe is listed at 5-foot-10, and Taylor stands at 6-5.
“The beauty about special teams is that we take all shapes and sizes,” Maalouf said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re 6-4 or 5-11 or 5-6. Each guy can do something well in his own right. They both could have a role back there; it just depends on what the situation might be.”
That doesn’t mean other players haven’t had a shot at fielding punts, however, including receiver Brandon Zylstra, who stepped in four times last season when Sherels was sidelined by an injury. He averaged 6.5 yards per return with a long of 9.
Maalouf reminded that it’s important to have more than one guy who can do the job.
“You know this league, there’s injuries all the time, so you can’t have enough punt returners, you can’t have enough gunners,” he said. “You’ve got to be in a mindset that as many guys as you can have that can help you at one spot – and that’s a good plan to have, a good problem to have.”
As far as kickoff returns go, Ameer Abdullah likely has the leg up, although others rotated through during OTAs and minicamp.
Abdullah spent the first four seasons of his NFL career with the division-rival Lions and was picked up by the Vikings in November after being released by Detroit. Over seven games in Purple, Abdullah returned 10 kicks for 258 yards.
Receiver Jeff Badet, cornerback Holton Hill and rookie cornerback Kris Boyd were also among Vikings who stepped in at kick returner during spring practices.
Maalouf pointed out that in vying for a returner role, players have different styles.
“We’ve got a good group of guys who have been getting a lot of reps in practice, which is important because I’m still familiarizing myself with this roster and kind of fitting the pieces to the puzzle,” Maalouf said during minicamp. “And you know, there’s a few guys that haven’t been able to do it that are injured who have had a history of doing it. So, it’ll be exciting once those guys get back to speed and just kind of seeing how it all shakes out. But the good thing is there’s quite a few guys that are doing it.”