Minnesota Vikings: Devin Hester

Welcome to Around the Horns, our daily look at what's happening on the Minnesota Vikings beat:

The last time Devin Hester was at TCF Bank Stadium, he was a member of the Chicago Bears, playing a December 2010 game that had been moved from a dilapidated Metrodome to a field that didn't yet have a heating system. Hester set the NFL record for combined kick and punt return touchdowns that night in a game that gave the Bears the NFC North title.

Hester
Hester is back this weekend, with a new team (the Atlanta Falcons) and a new record (for the most overall return touchdowns in history). He's 31 years old, but in many ways, he's as good as he's ever been.

In addition to bringing a punt back for a touchdown on Sept. 18 against Tampa Bay, Hester has a rushing touchdown this season and has caught seven passes for 123 yards. As the Vikings face their old nemesis -- Hester has scored three times as many touchdowns against them as any other team -- they know not to assume he's slipped.

"Every time we go against him, he’s a huge challenge," special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. "It might be a revival for him, but it’s still the same challenge for us. He’s just a great player."

Former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe frequently struggled to kick the ball away from Hester, but Priefer said he's made his instructions clear to Kluwe's successor, Jeff Locke.

"I thought Jeff had his best game of the year (last week)," Priefer said. "He kicked well against St. Louis, struggled a little bit against New England, did a really nice job last weekend. I told him just to build on his success and keep them high and short near the sideline or even out of bounds, I’ll take it against Devin."

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On the eve of free agency last week, our four NFC North reporters -- Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers), Ben Goessling (Minnesota Vikings), Michael Rothstein (Detroit Lions) and Michael C. Wright (Chicago Bears) -- compiled a list of the top-15 free agents in the division.

A week has passed and nine of them already have come off the market, including six who re-signed with their old teams.

Perhaps the biggest-name free agent from the NFC North, former Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, did not make the original list because he was not a free agent until he was released last week. He signed with the Packers on Saturday.

You can follow all of the NFL free-agent moves in Bill Polian's free-agent tracker, but let's revisit the NFC North top 15 and see what has changed:

1. Sam Shields, Packers CB: Signed a four-year, $39 million contract just a few hours into the open negotiating period on March 8. His $9.75 million per year average made him the fourth-highest paid cornerback in the league behind Darrelle Revis ($16 million), Brandon Carr ($10 million) and Aqib Talib ($9.8 million).

2. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions TE: Re-signed with the Lions for four years and $16 million, including a $4 million signing bonus.

3. Jermichael Finley, Packers TE: Remained unsigned after a visit to the Seattle Seahawks last week. It’s not known what the Seahawks' medical staff thought of Finley's C-3/C-4 neck vertebra fusion surgery that he had last November following his season-ending neck injury.

4. Charles Tillman, Bears CB: Signed a one-year contract to return to Chicago last Friday after missing half of last season because of a torn triceps. The deal is worth about $3.5 million.

5. B.J. Raji, Packers DT: Less than a year after reportedly turning down a multi-year offer that averaged $8 million per season, he returned to the Packers for a one-year deal signed on Friday that was believed to be worth $4 million plus incentives.

6. Matt Cassel, Vikings QB: Opted out of his 2014 contract after the Super Bowl but signed a new two-year, $10.5 million deal with the Vikings on March 7, just before teams could start contacting his agent and will likely head into training camp with the inside track on the starting job.

7. Willie Young, Lions DL: Signed a three-year, $9 million contract with the Bears. Former seventh-round pick received his first extensive playing time with the Lions in 2013, becoming a full-time starter after Jason Jones was injured for the season in Week 3.

8. James Jones, Packers WR: Remained unsigned after the first week of free agency and has not had any known visits even after he ranked second on the Packers last season in receptions (59) and yards (817), the latter of which was a career high despite missing nearly three full games because of a knee injury. Three years ago, coming off the NFL lockout, Jones did not draw strong interest on the free-agent market and re-signed with the Packers for three years and $9.6 million. Could the same thing happen again?

9. Jared Allen, Vikings DE: Remained unsigned after the first week of free agency but reportedly visited the Seattle Seahawks over the weekend. After three All-Pro selections in six years, Allen's time in Minnesota is over.

10. Josh McCown, Bears QB: Signed a two-year, $10 million contract to rejoin his old coach, Lovie Smith, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

11. Henry Melton, Bears DL: Coming off a torn ACL, Melton went unsigned during the first wave of free agency but has a visit scheduled with the Dallas Cowboys this week.

12. Devin Hester, Bears KR: Remained unsigned more than a week after the Bears said they would not bring him back.

13. Rashean Mathis, Lions CB: Remained unsigned after playing in 15 games and taking over as a starter early in the season last year.

14. Everson Griffen, Vikings DE: Cashed in on March 9th by signing a five-year, $42.5 million deal that included $20 million guaranteed to return to Minnesota.

15. Louis Delmas, Lions S: Signed a one-year, $2.25 million contract with the Miami Dolphins after the Lions released him with one year remaining on his contract in February, in part because of a cap number of $6.5 million in 2014.

Top free-agent roundup: NFC North

March, 10, 2014
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A few deals have been signed around the NFC North in the days leading up to free agency, but plenty of valuable players are about to hit the open market.

Here is a ranking of top NFC North free agents, with information provided by ESPN.com reporters Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers), Ben Goessling (Minnesota Vikings), Michael Rothstein (Detroit Lions) and Michael C. Wright (Chicago Bears).

We will update this periodically throughout the next several weeks.

1.Sam Shields, Packers CB: Emerged as the Packers' top cover cornerback last season while playing for the restricted free-agent tender of $2.023 million and was re-signed to a four-year, $39 million contract just a few hours into the open negotiating period Saturday. His 2014 total pay of $15 million makes him the NFL's second-highest-paid cornerback for next season.

2. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions TE: The No. 20 pick in the 2009 draft out of Oklahoma State, Pettigrew spent the past five seasons as one of Detroit's primary tight ends, specifically known for the ability to both block and run routes effectively.

3. Jermichael Finley, Packers TE: Had surgery to fuse the C3 and C4 vertebra in his neck but expects to be cleared by his doctor. Gambled two years ago in free agency, signing just a two-year, $14 million deal in the hope that he would blossom into a star and command an even bigger contract the next time around.

4. Charles Tillman, Bears CB: The NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year, Tillman started eight games last season before finishing on the injured reserve with a torn triceps. The Bears hope to bring back Tillman but might not be able to come up with a suitable offer.

5. B.J. Raji, Packers DT: Reportedly turned down an $8 million per year offer from the Packers last season, which might have been a sign that he preferred to play in a system that gave defensive linemen more freedom. After a disappointing season, his value has gone down, and as of last week, he was close to signing a one-year deal to return.

Cassel
Cassel
6. Matt Cassel, Vikings QB: Opted out of his 2014 contract after the Super Bowl but signed a new two-year deal with the Vikings on Friday, just before teams could start contacting his agent. He will likely head into training camp with the inside track on the starting job.

7. Willie Young, Lions DL: Former seventh-round pick received his first extensive playing time in 2013, becoming a full-time starter after Jason Jones was injured for the season in Week 3. Young turned into one of the more disruptive players up front, making 47 tackles, recovering two fumbles and recording three sacks.

8. James Jones, Packers WR: Ranked second on the Packers last season in receptions (59) and yards (817), the latter of which was a career high despite missing nearly three full games because of a knee injury. Three years ago, coming off the NFL lockout, Jones did not draw strong interest on the free-agent market and re-signed with the Packers for three years and $9.6 million.

9. Jared Allen, Vikings DE: After three All-Pro selections in six years, Allen’s time in Minnesota is likely over. He could come back as a situational pass-rusher on a reduced salary, but after making $14 million last season, Allen might head elsewhere for a bigger role and bigger paycheck.

McCown
10. Josh McCown, Bears QB: He proved he is capable of filling in for Jay Cutler in a pinch and is instrumental behind the scenes for nearly every skill player on the offense. It's not a slam dunk he will be back, and talks with the Bears haven't been especially productive.

11. Henry Melton, Bears DL: Melton's representatives fully expect him to test the market in free agency because the Bears haven’t shown a ton of interest. Coming off a torn ACL, Melton probably won't command top dollar in the first wave of free agency.

12. Devin Hester, Bears KR: Became strictly a return specialist for the Bears last season and is still one of the league's best at his position. Probably expects a payday similar to what he's gotten in the past.

13. Rashean Mathis, Lions CB: Mathis signed with Detroit during the 2013 preseason and became one of the team's starting cornerbacks by the third week of the season. He played in 15 games, making 47 tackles and often drawing the opponent's top wide receiver.

14. Everson Griffen, Vikings DE: The 26-year-old cashed in on Sunday by signing a five-year, $42.5 million deal that included $20 million guaranteed to return to Minnesota. He should flourish in new coach Mike Zimmer's defensive scheme.

15. Louis Delmas, Lions S: The 26-year-old was released by Detroit with one year remaining on his contract in February, in part because of a cap number of $6.5 million in 2014. Has played in 65 games for Detroit over five seasons, with 328 tackles, six interceptions and two forced fumbles. He also had five sacks and four fumble recoveries.
Welcome back to our chronological look at the 10 plays that most shaped the Minnesota Vikings' 2013 season. Today: Play No. 9.

WHEN: Dec. 8, 2013

WHERE: A 29-26 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

THE PLAY: Jacoby Jones' 77-yard kickoff return touchdown.

WHAT THEY SAID: Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer: "I've gone back and forth on that a thousand times. I saw it happening. Going forward, we'll have our kicker see that and make a change, make an adjustment. But it still shouldn't matter. We've still got to cover it. I put our guys in a bad position."

IMPACT OF THE PLAY: The Vikings were up 26-22 with just 1:45 left when Priefer called for a mortar kick -- or a short, arcing kickoff -- to keep the ball away from Jones. Kicker Blair Walsh took too long to kick off, though, and tipped the Ravens off to the mortar kick by standing still for too long before taking a shorter approach to the ball. Jones ran up to field the short kick, found an alley down the sideline, scored a touchdown and put the Ravens ahead in a wild fourth quarter, meaning Cordarrelle Patterson's 79-yard touchdown with 1:01 left would only put the Vikings up by four points. giving the Ravens one more chance to come back and win the game. Of the handful of big returns the Vikings allowed this season, Priefer probably beat himself up for this one the most, since it came so late in the game and, Priefer admitted, he made the decision partly out of fear that Walsh would send a second straight squib kick out of bounds. " I didn't want to give them the ball at the 40-yard line. So that was going through my head, and I figured that we had been covering them well, but I flashed back to the week before -- we had covered [the Bears' Devin] Hester well the entire game until the one kick that [Hester returned at the end of the game to put the Bears in field goal range]. I thought the best course of action would be to kick the mortar kick. That's what I recommended to our head coach, and that's what he went with. Obviously, it didn't work out for us."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Since Sunday's 29-26 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Minnesota Vikings special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer has thought about Jacoby Jones' 77-yard fourth-quarter kick return touchdown "a thousand times."

What he's come to, he said Thursday, is that the Vikings won't use their coverage scheme from the "mortar kick" to Jones again.

[+] EnlargeBaltimore's Jacoby Jones
Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun/MCT via Getty ImagesThe Ravens' Jacoby Jones burned the Vikings with a 77-yard kickoff return for a TD late in the fourth quarter last Sunday.
The Vikings had contained Jones all day when Blair Walsh lined up to kick off after Toby Gerhart's touchdown run with 1:27 left. But they had done the same thing with Devin Hester the week before, and Hester returned a kickoff 57 yards in the fourth quarter, setting up the Chicago Bears' 66-yard field goal try as time expired in regulation. The kick missed, and Priefer ordered a mortar kick in overtime, which Michael Ford -- not Hester -- fielded at the Bears 22.

"The one thing I was concerned about is that we had kicked one out of bounds the play before, the kickoff before," Priefer said. "We could've put it on the ground again, but I wasn't sure. I got a little nervous. I didn't want to give them the ball at the 40-yard line. So that was going through my head, and I figured that we had been covering them well, but I flashed back to the week before -- we had covered Hester well the entire game until the one kick. I thought the best course of action would be to kick the mortar kick. That's what I recommended to our head coach, and that's what he went with. Obviously, it didn't work out for us."

The problem, Priefer said, was that the Ravens diagnosed the mortar kick when they saw Walsh's short approach, and told Jones to start inching up to field a short kickoff. Walsh needed to see that and go to a different plan, Priefer said, and on the return, the Ravens sealed off an alley for Jones to race down the left sideline.

"They read it perfectly. They did a good job. I got outcoached on that play, unfortunately," Priefer said. "We didn't execute it well enough. We had guys over there. We had, I think, two of them got pinned inside. He hit that seam full-speed. It was not a very good call on my part, and it was not schemed up well on my part. I've got to give credit to them. They did a nice job, and got the ball in their best playmaker's hands."

If there was an encouraging development on Sunday for Priefer, it was how well Walsh and punter Jeff Locke performed in the snowy weather. Walsh hit two field goals, and Locke averaged 44.1 yards on nine punts. That kind of a performance could come in handy with the Vikings moving outdoors to the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium the next two seasons.

"I knew pregame we had a chance to be real successful on punts and kickoffs because the way our young guys, those two young kids, approached the game," Priefer said. "They were, like, ‘This is going to be fun.’ I mean, I have a kid from Arizona that went to UCLA and a kid from Florida that went to Georgia. They went out there and did a fantastic job for us, and I was real proud of them. There were a lot of positives for us in that game, but it came down to one play. Again, that’s the one that hurt us."

Upon Further Review: Vikings Week 13

December, 2, 2013
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A review of four hot issues after the Minnesota Vikings' 23-20 win over the Chicago Bears:

Peterson wills his way past Bears: Adrian Peterson might not have all of his breakaway speed as he plays with a strained groin, but the performance he turned in on Sunday was the kind of tour de force he churned out so often in the second half of his MVP season a year ago. Peterson ran for 211 yards against a steady diet of eight- and nine-man fronts; he faced at least eight defenders in the box on 24 of his 35 carries, according to ESPN Stats and Information, and averaged more yards per carry with eight or more in the box (6.1) than he did against seven defenders or fewer (5.8).

[+] EnlargeRhett Ellison
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsRhett Ellison's tipped ball for an interception was one of his two crucial plays that could have cost Minnesota the game.
QB decision looming: The Vikings will wait to see how Christian Ponder recovers from a concussion as they try to make a decision on their quarterback for Sunday's game in Baltimore, but Matt Cassel once again had the Vikings' offense running smoother than Ponder has at many points this year. Cassel threw for 243 yards, and handled extra pressure better than either Ponder or Josh Freeman has this season. He hit 11 of his 17 throws for 148 yards and a touchdown against five or more pass-rushers, according to ESPN Stats & Information. His completion percentage against such fronts (65.9 percent this season) is better than Ponder's (61.9 percent) or Freeman's (33.3 percent). Cassel could be competing with either Ponder and Freeman, or just Freeman, to play next week against the Ravens, but he did enough to possibly get another start.

Special teams confusion: The end of Sunday's game brought a number of odd special teams situations that seemed to confuse the Vikings. First, after Blair Walsh tied the game in regulation, the Vikings kicked deep to Devin Hester, who returned the ball 57 yards and might have scored if Walsh hadn't angled him out of bounds. Coach Leslie Frazier admitted after the game the Vikings shouldn't have kicked to Hester, adding they expected him to down the ball in the end zone like he had with Walsh's other deep picks. When the Bears tried a 67-yard field goal on the final play of regulation, the Vikings hurried Cordarrelle Patterson out to return the kick, barely getting him on the field in time. "I tried to set the wrong way and go the other way," Patterson said. "The thing was there, but I put it all on me. I think I could have scored." And then, after Rhett Ellison's face mask penalty wiped out Walsh's would-be game-winning field goal in overtime, the Vikings' field goal unit stayed on the field before the offense came back out to try to get Walsh closer than 54 yards on third down. Frazier said the Vikings wanted to get 4 more yards for Walsh, but Peterson lost three and Walsh missed from 57.

Ellison gets "elephant off my back:" Had the Vikings lost, Ellison likely would have worn much of the blame; he couldn't control what might have been a touchdown pass from Cassel with less than five minutes to play. He wound up tipping the ball toward the Bears' defense, where Khaseem Greene wound up intercepting it and running it back to midfield. Then, Ellison's face mask penalty negated Walsh's field goal, setting off a bizarre scene in which referees sorted things out amid postgame fireworks. Wide receiver Greg Jennings had to be pulled back from the tunnel up to the Vikings' locker room. Asked what he was thinking after the mistakes, Ellison replied, "That I really screwed the team over and that I made a big mistake." And when Walsh hit the game-winning field goal, Ellison said it was "like an elephant off my back. I don't know. It was just a miracle, I guess."

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