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.
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.
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.
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.