MINNEAPOLIS - This time last year, the Minnesota Vikings had more questions than answers when it came to their specialists.
The Vikings used their final pick of the 2019 NFL Draft on Air Force long snapper Austin Cutting. He eventually beat out veteran Kevin McDermott for the job. They brought in Kaare Vedvik to compete for the punting and kicking job. He didn’t make it to the end of training camp. One week before the regular season started, the Vikings signed veteran Britton Colquitt to punt and hold for Dan Bailey.
Suddenly, everything clicked with Cutting, Colquitt and Bailey. They’ll all be back this year, and without time to work together in a virtual off-season, last year’s experience and continuity becomes essential.
“There’s so much uncertainty now, so for us to have those three guys that have worked together before is a tremendous plus for us. I don’t think this was the year to experiment with getting different bodies in here. Let’s face it, I didn’t want different bodies in here, I wanted those three guys to stay together,” Vikings special teams coach Marwan Maalouf said Wednesday via Zoom.
Bailey is coming off one of the best seasons in his nine years in the NFL. He went 27-of-29 on field goals, making all 10 tries from 20 to 29 yards, all nine from 30 to 39 yards, going 5-of-7 from 40 to 49 yards and making all three from 50 yards or more. Bailey was also 40 of 44 on extra points, and earned NFC Special Teams Player of the Week multiple times.
Bailey’s production is a product of Cutting giving Colquitt a good snap to hold, Colquitt getting the ball on the turf and Bailey executing the kick. Without all three in harmony, it doesn’t work.
Colquitt also averaged 45.2 yards per punt last season over 16 teams, and didn’t have any blocked.
“I think Dan had an unbelievable year last year, and hopefully we can keep building on that. Same with Britton, and I was impressed with Austin’s rookie year and I think there’s only room for him to get better as well,” Maalouf said. “It’s been good having all three of those guys.”
Maalouf might have the most difficult challenge among football coaches in a virtual off-season. The first conversation he has with players about special teams is on embracing a role. Special teams is often the gateway for a rookie to have an impact on offense or defense, but it’s not a glamorous role.
He pointed to defensive back Kris Boyd, who led the Vikings special teams in tackles last season. He thinks it can lead to Boyd making a jump on defense this year, and he might get the opportunity with Xavier Rhodes, Mackensie Alexander, Trae Waynes and Andrew Sendejo all gone from the secondary.
Maalouf says he shows rookies film of veterans who already have a key role on offense or defense going through special teams drills as an eye-opener, like Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and even Kyle Rudolph.
“When they see that, I think that kind of opens their eyes like OK so all these veteran guys are doing what we’re going to be doing and they all have a role. The best that you can do is just show that to them on the film that we’re watching,” Maalouf said.
If there’s one area a football team arguably needs to be on the field most to build a continuity, it’s special teams. But due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the Vikings and the rest of the NFL have had to alter plans during a virtual off-season.
They have meetings via video conference, then it’s up to players to do work on their own. Rookie K.J. Osborn catches balls from a jugs machine and catches punts from friends. Colquitt has a common field at his Florida home where he works on punts. Other players work on special teams techniques, have it filmed and send it to Maalouf for feedback.
They’re doing what they can, but they’ll inevitably be behind when the NFL gives the OK for teams to practice together and hold training camp.
“I can’t see these guys physically on the field yet and until we get together and do that, I think every team is a little behind,” Maalouf said. “Nothing can replicate a guy on the field with the rest of this teammates and then comparing those guys. You can kind of see it and it’s good that they’re trying to do that, trying to replicate it as much as possible. Of course nothing will be as good as getting our own people around us and doing it in our backyard here.”