Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Finding a Return Man

Prior to the 2004 season, Vikings' head coach Mike Tice stated that the Vikings had made significant improvements in their special teams units. In particular, Tice believed that the Vikings would be "much improved" in the return game. To some extent, Tice was correct. The Vikings did improve their punt-rturn numbers from 2003, but the numbers dipped for kickoff returns.

In 2003, Keenan Howry was the Vikings' primary kick and punt return "specialist." Howrey's punt-return numbers were anemic, as he averaged 7.1 yards per punt return. On kickoff returns, Howry had a much more respectable 22.6 yard average, but never appeared to be a threat to bust one loose.

In 2004, with Howry on injured reserve, the Vikings turned to a trio of players to return punts and kickoffs. The primary carriers of these duties were Nate Burleson, Onterrio SOD Smith, and Mewelde Moore, with the veterans Burleson and SOD getting the bulk of the return opportunities. Burleson averaged 8.56 yards returning punts. SOD averaged 17.2 yards per kickoff return. In more limited action, Moore averaged 19.3 yards on kickoff returns.

While the Vikings' 2004 numbers represented an improvement in punt-return average, the numbers on kickoff returns fell dramatically. That puts the Vikings about where they were heading into the 2004 season, with questions in the return game. And the primary question remains whether the Vikings have a legitimate kickoff and punt return man on their squad.

Considerations

Though Howry turned in respectable numbers on kickoff returns in 2003 and remains on the Vikings' roster in 2005, there is reason for the Vikings to cut him loose this off-season. And one need look no further for this reason than to the fact that Howry is still a one-trick pony. Despite the Vikings' efforts to make Howry a punt-return specialist, his numbers remain sufficiently below the league average and he is not a break-away threat. Add to this Howry's late-2003 performances and there is more reason for concern. In one particularly dreadful performance at the end of the 2003 season, Howry handled four punts. The result was two returns for -.5 yards, with a long of 1 yard, and two fair catches.

And what Howry gave the Vikings on kickoff returns the Vikings might be able to pick up from someone else. Although SOD's 2004 numbers were disappointing, he did finesse a 21.7 average on kickoff returns in 2003 and appears to have the ability to match those numbers in the future. While not dazzling, the numbers are equal to those posted by Howry in 2003 and thus make the erstwhile receiver--currently mired in the sixth or seventh slot in the Vikings' receiver rotation--eminently expendable.

Alternative?

While SOD and Burleson have demonstrated that they can meet modest expectations returning kickoffs and punts, respectively, there remains an alternative for the Vikings in free agency. And that alternative comes in the form of one of the NFL's leading kickoff and punt return specialists, Eddie Drummond.

In 2002, Drummond averaged 26 yards per kickoff return. That number dipped to 22.3 in an injury-riddled 2003, but climbed to 26.6 in 2004. For good measure, Drummond returned two kickoffs for touchdowns last season.

Drummond's punt return numbers are even more impressive than his kickoff-return numbers. In 2003, Drummond averaged 12.6 yards per return with one touchdown. Last year, Drummond averaged 13.2 yards per return with two touchdowns.

And while Drummond's numbers would represent a clear upgrade for the Vikings, Drummond's presence would be measurable in another equally significant way, as the mere threat of a touchdown return on kickoffs and punts would force teams to alter their kicking games. With Drummond returning kickoffs, teams likely would kickoff either high and short or do a squib kick. In either case, the Vikings would gain yards before even considering the yards that Drummond added returning the kick. And on punts, teams likely would either kick the ball into the endzone and concede the touchback or angle for the sideline--a lost art the attempt of which usually results in excellent field position for the return team.

Price

As a restricted free agent, Drummond would not be cheap, but he may be exactly what the Vikings need. Should the Vikings sign Drummond, they would owe the Lions a first-round draft choice as compenstation. That might sound steep, but consider that the Vikings have two first-round selections in 2005 and that by signing Drummond--whom the Lions have tendered at $1.2 million--the Vikings fill a need with a premiere player at what should be a relatively low price. The Vikings also would save the money that they otherwise would have spent to sign a first-round selection. As an added bonus, if the Lions prefer to keep Drummond, they will need to increase their tender offer--a nice hit to a division rival's salary cap.

The final question for the Vikings will be, then, not whether having Drummond would significantly upgrade the Vikings' return game, but whether the Vikings wish to add a young but veteran return man at the risk of losing the 18th overall pick in the 2005 draft. This is one vote for making the offer.

Up Next: Other RFAs.

12 comments:

J. Ryan said...

I doubt the Vikings would make such a trade. While a KR/PR is certainly one of their needs, I've read in interviews that the Vikes intend to either look inside the organization for the solution or answer it in the draft.

It could be that going into 2005 we'll have most of the same names that competed for the job last year, and one -- Blake Elliott -- who was unable to because of injury.

Last year, after Elliott was picked up as a UFA, Tice said that he had Elliott "penciled in" as the team's return man. Of course, this was before he broke his leg and ostensibly got to spend the whole year reading the playbook and watching film. It's expected that he'll be back to compete for the job.

Ryan Hoag's name has also been mentioned again lately. He competed for the job last year and was actually added to the active roster for a few games in 2004 when a return man was needed, but he never stepped on the field. Nonetheless, some coaches feel that he made enough progress in the last year to be on the short list for the full time job this year.

Perhaps because of the injuries each sustained in 2004, neither one of them was allocated to NFL Europe -- that job was given to yet another practice squad WR, Aaron Hosack, who (ironically) is on IR for the Frankfurt squad. I've never heard Hosack mentioned as a KR or PR.

I don't know if someone such as Troy Williamson could do the job, should the Vikings draft him, but I'd rather the Vikes draft someone like him with #18 than spend it on Eddie Drummond. While it's likely that Williamson will be gone by that spot, and the Vikes pursue a DE, I feel the #18 pick is too valuable, especially when one considers giving it to a division rival -- even if you take their KR as compensation.

The fact of the matter is that you have a decent chance of getting a good KR/PR later in the draft or as a UFA. Which brings me to another point -- a seventh round pick is worth a little more than a warm bucket of spit, considering they'll now get to pick an extra guy that they won't have to outbid other teams for when the UFA signing period begins.

Good post. I do expect the Vikings' KR/PR needs to be addressed, but I don't think it will have to cost them the #18 pick to do so.

Vikes Geek said...

JR,

I mostly agree, though I don't think the Vikings will get a return man any better than Burleson or SOD via the draft or from within the organization. I don't believe Hoag is the answer, but I think you are correct that the Vikings want at least to see whether Elliot can do the job. He certainly has the speed, if only he can take the beating.

But the big question for the Vikings is not whether they can find someone to return kicks, it is whether they want a proven, premier player handling those duties. Drummond and Hall are in a class by themselves and probably worth of a first-round pick. And if the Vikings are willing to draft a kick return specialist at #18, why not take a proven, young, kick-return specialist in exchange for #18?

Ultimately, the question for the Vikings, as you state, is whether the return game is a priority. It has not been the past two seasons--despite Tice's contentions to the contrary--so the jury is still well out. And if there is a good defensive player available at 18, I would probably lean that direction as well.

Of course, the Vikings might already have the return men that they need and we do not realize it because they do not yet have the special teams' coach that they need.

VG

vikinghooper said...

Can't give up 18 for Drummond.

Remeber Drummond fractured his scapula and one return for a touchdown was against us.

This means HE is fragile and only returned one touchdown against NFL caliber kick coverage.

Let MM and K Campbell return kicks.

Vikes Geek said...

Hoop,

As I said to JR, I don't necessarily disagree. Drummond has had injuries, and he is primarily, possibly exclusively, a return guy. All that works against tendering him for an 18--along with the fact that there should be a very good defensive player available at 18.

With that said, there are three other considerations that will factor into the Vikings' decision (assuming this is even on their radar). The first one, I mentioned--the Vikings' need for a return guy who can change field position battles dramatically. The second, I alluded to--the fact that by making an offer the Vikings will force Detroit to decide whether to match or take the Vikings' number one. The third is that the Vikings may prefer a sure thing for the money of a number one.

In the end, this deal would probably look better were we one or two years down the road with a more solidified defense.

VG

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