Minnesota Vikings: Jeff Locke

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Up until the point Jeff Locke reached down to field a low snap from Cullen Loeffler, it had been a pretty good Sunday for the Minnesota Vikings' special teams unit. Antone Exum had recovered a fumble at the Miami Dolphins' 5 after special teams coordinator Mike Priefer took advantage of a personal foul penalty and called for a high kickoff from midfield, rather than ordering Blair Walsh to boom the ball out of the end zone. Locke had drilled three punts for 151 yards, launching one for 60 yards that pinned the Dolphins at their own 9, and the Vikings took advantage of Miami's reluctance to kick to Cordarrelle Patterson, beginning a pair of drives at their own 35 and 40, respectively.

"We had a great day overall, in terms of field position and everything," Locke said. "Blair's kick -- we got the fumble recovery. We really thought we helped change the game there. And then, obviously, it didn't end the way we wanted it to."

It ended on a blocked punt by Miami's Terrence Fede that bounded out of the Vikings' end zone for what the Elias Sports Bureau said was the first go-ahead safety in the final minute of a 4th quarter in NFL history. The two points gave Miami a 37-35 lead. After the Vikings came up short in their attempt at an onside punt -- a play Locke and Walsh had worked on after seeing Green Bay's Tim Masthay try it the week before against Buffalo -- the Dolphins ran out the clock.

Locke said he wasn't able to get the punt off as quick as he would have liked -- a function of the low snap, obviously -- and added he didn't have his eyes up at the Dolphins' rush when he kicked the ball. "You don't ever really look up at the line; at least I don't," Locke said. "A couple guys in the league do it every once in a while, but I've never done it."

Mostly, though, the play went awry on an errant snap from Loeffler, the senior member of the Vikings' roster and one of the more dependable specialists in the league. As part of the Vikings' quirky and close-knit triumvirate of special teamers, Locke said he felt awful for the long snapper.

"He's really like an older brother to me," Locke said. "He's helped me into this league and stuff. The first thing I felt was terrible for him. He's such a great guy, and I felt terrible to have that happen at the end of the game."

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MINNEAPOLIS -- Thanks to all of you who submitted questions for this week's Minnesota Vikings mailbag. You can submit them at any point during the week on Twitter, using the hashtag #VikingsMail.

@GoesslingESPN: Good morning, everyone. Hope your Saturday is off to a good start. We'll kick things off here, with a question that is a bit tricky to answer. It's too early to tell if either Matt Kalil or Cordarrelle Patterson is going to rebound from this season to get back to the level they reached as rookies -- and with Kalil, it's certainly concerning that has now had two off years (at a position where consistency is typically easier to achieve than at receiver). But I'd still say Kalil has a better chance to be a consistent Pro Bowl-caliber player, simply because we already have one example of him performing the whole season at a high level. We've seen Patterson perform at an elite level as a kick returner, and when the Vikings are designing plays with an effort to get the ball in his hands, but there is no evidence yet of him handling all that the receiver position entails. Receiver is intrinsically a harder position to stand out than offensive tackle, simply because of how many variables are involved for wideouts, and plenty of receivers start to break out in Year 3. It's still possible for Patterson, but at this point, I'm slightly more confident in the ceiling for Kalil.

@GoesslingESPN: I don't think they will have one -- Mike Priefer vouched for Jeff Locke in the 2013 draft, and has stood by the punter he effectively hand-picked. The Vikings have a great deal of respect for Priefer's opinion on special teams matters, and unless there is a big push from others in the organization to make a change there, I believe Locke will be back in 2015. But it might not be a bad idea to bring in some competition for him in training camp. Locke has essentially had the job to himself since rookie camp last year, and the things about Locke that excited the Vikings -- chiefly, his ability to pin opponents deep in their own territory -- haven't been on display. Locke's net average of 39.36 yards is 21st in the league, and according to ESPN Stats and Information, he's 28th in the league in the percentage of punts he's put inside both the 10- and 5-yard line (though he dropped a punt at the 5 last week and has been better in recent weeks). I doubt they will go in another direction next year, but it can't hurt to bring in some competition.

@GoesslingESPN: The Vikings haven't used guard David Yankey yet this season, and the reasoning is simple; coach Mike Zimmer has consistently said Yankey needs to get stronger before he sees the field, and added this week that Yankey is "still a ways away." He was one of the Vikings' three draft picks who joined the team late after attending a college on the quarters system, and he will benefit from an offseason of strength training before he returns to the Vikings. Next year, though, Yankey could be a bigger factor in the Vikings' plans, particularly if they look to make a change at left guard. He was regarded as a steal when the Vikings took him in the fifth round, and with Charlie Johnson struggling this season, Yankey could get the opportunity to compete for that job.

@GoesslingESPN: It's too early to have a complete handle on the draft (and as a public service announcement, we will wait a while before we do a deep dive into draft questions in this mailbag), but we can definitely take a look at some positions of need at this point. I'd put linebacker at or near the top of that list; the Vikings would benefit from a fast, physical middle linebacker who could play next to Anthony Barr, and if they feel like Gerald Hodges is the future on the weak side, they would have a nice young group at the position if they added another player to the group. I'd also look at a versatile safety who can play next to Harrison Smith, another big cornerback and offensive line help (though I think a veteran pickup is more likely than a high draft pick at tackle). Running back could be a consideration, too, depending on what happens with Adrian Peterson; this is such a deep running back draft that the Vikings might find a player that intrigues them as part of a possible pairing with Jerick McKinnon. I'd see defensive end and wide receiver depth as lower-level needs. My sense of it is, the Vikings believe they could have a top-tier defense with a couple more impact moves, and I expect them to use plenty of resources this offseason to get that unit where Zimmer wants it..

That will do it for this edition of the mailbag. Thanks for the great questions, everyone. Hope you enjoy your Saturday. One programming notice: Your old buddy and NFC North blogger emeritus Kevin Seifert will be with you in Detroit tomorrow, as I stay home with my wife and await the birth of our second child. You will be in good hands with him, of course, and I'll talk to you soon.

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The Minnesota Vikings gave up just 225 yards to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, but their special teams handed over nearly another 100 yards of field position, thanks to an ongoing penalty problem and a few poorly-placed punts from Jeff Locke.

Both cornerback Jabari Price and safety Antone Exum -- two of the Vikings' repeat offenders on special teams -- were flagged for holding on punt returns. Price's penalty wiped out a 42-yard return from Marcus Sherels, taking the Vikings back to their own 35 after Sherels' runback put Minnesota at Tampa Bay's 26. The Vikings also had a penalty for a horse collar tackle on the opening kickoff in overtime, though that penalty was offset by a Buccaneers holding penalty.

Locke, meanwhile, boomed punts to the end zone from 49, 50 and 41 yards out, missing three chances to pin the Buccaneers deep in the end zone and finishing the day with a meager 35.1-yard net average.

One of the things that led the Vikings to Locke was his ability to pin opponents deep, especially with the Aussie-style kick he's used from less than 50 yards out. The fact he wasn't able to do it on Sunday cost the Vikings 60 yards, but coach Mike Zimmer sounded more irked about the penalties than the punts after the game.

"(The touchbacks were) disappointing, but it's even more disappointing the penalties that we've had in the kicking game," Zimmer said. "(It's) all these young guys, and I'm just about fed up with it."

Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said he would think about making changes to special teams units if the same players were being penalized, and it will be interesting to see if the Vikings look to pull Price or Exum off any units this week. Both rookies have been among the leading culprits in the Vikings' special teams penalty problem, and Zimmer's comments on Sunday might provide the fuel for a change."

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It's been a mantra the Vikings' receivers have heard from position coach George Stewart all week, and it was on Mike Zimmer's lips a split-second after he was asked about what the team's wideouts can do to help rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater get the offense rolling:

"I've got four for you: We've got to get into the route, win in transition, we've got to get out of the route and extend for the ball," Zimmer said. "How's that?"

While the Vikings' offensive line has been under scrutiny this week after the team's quarterbacks have been sacked a combined 14 times in the last two games, Minnesota's coaching staff has taken a global approach to fixing the team's pass-protection issues and getting the offense functioning again. A key step in that process has been an emphasis on receivers getting more separation from defensive backs, giving Bridgewater quicker and better options to throw the football. The Vikings' receivers caught just 11 passes for 87 yards last week against the Detroit Lions. They'll have to be better this weekend against another aggressive defense that is the league's toughest against the run and has 19 sacks so far.

"Obviously, we looked hard at everything that happened to us last week and now we’re getting ready for a team that’s very similar to Detroit in terms of their defensive front, their pressure schemes," offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. "We’ve got to do a better job of protecting the quarterback. When we talk about the protection with the quarterback, I know the emphasis, in terms of the conversations, has been the offensive line, but it’s everyone involved in terms of what we’re doing."

Bridgewater has blamed himself for not releasing the ball quickly enough, and if the rookie had one problem last week, Turner said, it was not trusting what he was seeing after throwing an early end-zone interception that was intended for Cordarrelle Patterson. But it's reasonable to expect a quarterback with two-plus games of experience will still be timid about fitting the ball into some tight windows, particularly if he's throwing under duress. The Vikings' receivers also believe they can play a part in making Bridgewater's life easier.

"Everybody's got to do a better job in getting open," Patterson said. "We've got to beat man coverages, beat everything the defense is throwing at us. This week, it's going to be different."

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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 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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The Vikings head outdoors

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
MINNEAPOLIS -- It's smaller than the Metrodome. It's got bleachers in the end zone. The few splashes of purple on the field, laid against the maroon backdrop of the seats, look a bit odd. But for the next two years, it's home.

The Minnesota Vikings begin their two-year outdoor odyssey on Friday night, when they host the Oakland Raiders in their first preseason game of the 2014 season. The Vikings will spend the next two years at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium, while their new home is built on the former site of the Metrodome.

(If you hear players or Vikings officials referring to it as "University of Minnesota stadium," don't read anything into it; we've already been told there's nothing to our conspiracy theory that the team is trying to avoid mentioning one of the local competitors to U.S. Bank, whose CEO Richard Davis helped spearhead the 2018 Super Bowl bid and who might be one of the front-runners to land naming rights at the new stadium.)

Coach Mike Zimmer has talked about trying to make the best of the Vikings' temporary stadium, never mind the fact most NFL teams haven't fared well in stopovers at college stadiums. The Vikings have sent kicker Blair Walsh and punter Jeff Locke to the stadium to practice several times, and both players created detailed charts of how the wind currents will affect them at different times. The team also moved to the north sideline at TCF Bank Stadium in an effort to get a little more late-afternoon sunlight during December home games (the Gophers use the south sideline at home).
It's a new, and probably somewhat unsettling, era for a team that's lost 28 of its last 35 outdoor games, but the Vikings will try to make the most of it. And for fans, it'll offer a unique experience for the next two years, before the Vikings head back inside. Plan for a little extra time driving down University Avenue before the game, invest in a portable seat back if you're in the end zone, get ready to pull the winter gear out for three December home games and try to make the most of it.

Kicking off the season on a sun-splashed 80-degree August night isn't a bad way to start.


MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings were scheduled to pay Chris Kluwe $1.45 million in 2013. They paid his replacement, Jeff Locke, $451,048, saving themselves nearly $1 million with a decision that, according to the summary of a six-month investigation released Friday night, most of their decision-makers felt was necessary to upgrade their performance at the position.

Viewed solely through the prism of on-field results, it was the kind of simple, sensible football move teams make all the time. Which makes the Vikings' handling of Kluwe this week even more perplexing.

As the former punter and his attorney, Clayton Halunen, put it Friday, they offered the Vikings the following nonnegotiable terms to settle Kluwe's dispute with the team after the investigation into his allegations against special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer:
  • The team would make the entire 150-page report public, excepting the thousands of citations and footnotes -- some of which contained sensitive personal information -- from investigator Chris Madel's interviews with Vikings players and employees.
  • The Vikings would suspend Priefer without pay for four to eight games for his homophobic remarks and require him to attend sensitivity training.
  • Lastly, the Vikings would donate $1 million to charities supporting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender-friendly causes.

Halunen might have put additional stipulations on a settlement other than the ones he and Kluwe detailed in interviews Friday night. And it's safe to assume the relationship between the parties was frayed by the end of the process, which couldn't have steered negotiations in a productive direction. But if those terms are correct and complete, it means the Vikings walked away from a settlement -- and goaded Kluwe into threatening a lawsuit -- over a $900,000 difference in the donation amount, a one-game difference in Priefer's suspension and a decision to release a 29-page report on the investigation from a law firm they hired to review it rather than the original, independent report itself.

That seems like a minuscule difference for the Vikings to cover to make the episode go away relatively quietly. Instead, six days before players report to training camp for the first time under new coach Mike Zimmer, the Vikings had a former player threatening a lawsuit and taking to Twitter to detail all the unseemly things he could divulge during that process. The Vikings should know Kluwe well enough by now to realize he's not one to back down, and they decided to provoke him when a little more transparency and contrition might have dispatched the whole thing. From a strictly legal perspective, they might be on solid footing; they've already reprimanded Priefer, and Halunen would have a hard time disproving the Vikings' claim that they cut Kluwe for performance reasons only. We've heard the full report, if released, will contain more material that paints Kluwe in an unflattering light, and Halunen seemed aware of that possibility Friday, after the initial summary included stories of Kluwe's bawdy locker room humor.

"I know there are things in there that are not flattering to my client," Halunen said. "He made jokes every once in a while. I know they’re going to be there."

But doesn't it worry the Vikings that, knowing all this, Kluwe seems intent on charging forward into the muck anyway?

Even the punter sounded perplexed, and slightly bemused, when discussing it Friday evening. "There was a reason I released the original Deadspin piece [on Jan. 2], so it would get handled at the best time of the year," Kluwe said. "The whole goal [was] to avoid this being handled in the football season. It's the same story going into the football season. It shouldn't be."

The Vikings could be standing on principles, or they could be trying to push Kluwe to the brink, hoping he'll accept a less favorable settlement over a protracted legal battle. But let's say players get asked to give depositions, or are even called to testify in court. Is that process -- and the possible PR hit -- worth the risk for the team?

If it's not, it's certainly tantalizing to ask why the Vikings passed on an opportunity to avoid it for roughly the sum of what they'll pay a backup defensive lineman this season. Or, slightly less than what they saved by keeping a rookie punter over a veteran who was about to become a very big thorn in their side.
MINNEAPOLIS -- As the Minnesota Vikings prepare to play their next two seasons at TCF Bank Stadium -- moving outdoors before a return to indoor home games at their new stadium -- there might not be two players on their roster who are affected by the move more than kicker Blair Walsh and punter Jeff Locke.

The two specialists have already made three trips to their new home field, traveling to the University of Minnesota campus the last two weeks with long snapper Cullen Loeffler, to learn about the tricky wind patterns caused by the stadium's unusual alignment. TCF Bank Stadium is on an East-West alignment, rather than the typical North-South orientation of football stadiums. The stadium's setup -- closed on the East end, open to the Minneapolis skyline on the West end -- creates some tricky cross-winds.

"Jeff and Blair went down there back during the first minicamp," special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said on Wednesday. "It was a real windy, cold, blustery day and they got a really good idea of what the winds are going to do. Jeff's got this elaborate drawing of what the winds are going to do that he and Blair put together, I mean, these are smart guys, a lot smarter than me. It's never going to be easy, especially late in the year when it's really windy. If you know where the winds are going, you have your sight lines, we're going to use that as a home-field advantage."

As Priefer said, the Vikings won't have a true idea about how TCF Bank Stadium will play in cold weather until late this season (though you'd be surprised how close some of Minnesota's spring weather came to wintry conditions this year). But the Vikings are trying, on many levels, to embrace their two-year residency at a college stadium, and their specialists' work to learn about the facility's wind patterns is ultimately geared toward giving the Vikings an edge.

"Coaching in Green Bay, against Green Bay, coaching in Chicago during bad weather, it's going to probably be very similar," Priefer said. "We will have a good idea going into every pregame of how strong the winds are, what the crosswinds are going to be like, tailwind, headwind and what we need to do to be successful. It should be an advantage over our opponent.
MINNEAPOLIS -- We're concluding our review of the Minnesota Vikings' recent draft history today, with a look at how the team did in 2013:

First-round pick: Nos. 23 (Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida), 25 (Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State) and 29 (Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee)

Number of picks: 9

Total Draft AV: 15 (T-15th; San Diego and St. Louis were the best with a 28 AV)

Highest player AV: Patterson, 8 (T-11th; Chicago's Kyle Long was the best with a 12 AV)

How they did: Our evaluation of this draft is obviously the most incomplete of any in our series, since it happened just a year ago. The Vikings' draft was defined by their aggressive first round, in which they sent four picks to New England to move back into the first round and select Patterson, who became the best kick returner in the league and earned first-team All-Pro honors as a rookie. Rhodes looks like a solid corner, and Floyd will get every chance to fortify the middle of the Vikings' defense after playing better toward the end of the season. Those three players, though, were the only significant contributors in the Vikings' rookie class (outside of punter Jeff Locke, who unseated Chris Kluwe), and for this draft to go down as a good one, the team will have to get more out of linebackers Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti and hope its three first-rounders turn into top-end players. Based on what Patterson did as a rookie, it looks like the Vikings are already one-third of the way there.

Pivotal pick: For this one, we can use the term "pivotal" more literally than we've been employing it during the rest of the series. Vikings general manager Rick Spielman was at a podium in the team's field house, discussing the selections of Floyd and Rhodes, when he got a signal that the Patriots would be willing to move out of the first round. Spielman turned and sprinted back to the Vikings' draft room, finalizing the deal for Patterson. It was a bold move, based on special teams coach Mike Priefer's enthusiasm about Patterson as a kick returner and the Vikings' belief that receivers coach George Stewart could help smooth out the rough edges in Patterson's game. After his first year in the league, Patterson looks like he could be the kind of multi-dimensional star the Vikings had in Percy Harvin.

Best pick: At this point, it's Patterson by a clear margin. If Rhodes continues to show the kind of progress he displayed late last season, though, he could challenge for the title. He figures to be a better fit in Mike Zimmer's defense than he was in Leslie Frazier's, and his press coverage skills could turn him into a valuable asset in a division full of big receivers. In the hands of Zimmer and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, Rhodes has a chance to make a major leap forward in Year 2.

Worst pick: Hodges wasn't able to push for much playing time as a rookie, even as the Vikings had plenty of question marks in their linebacking group. Locke, who became the highest-drafted punter in Vikings history, was just OK as a rookie.
MINNEAPOLIS -- We're concluding our position-by-position outlook of the Minnesota Vikings' roster. Today: the special teams.


2014 free agents: None

The good: Put simply, the Vikings found a star at kick returner. Cordarrelle Patterson was the only player in the NFL to return two kicks for touchdowns in 2013, and posted the second-highest kick return average since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. The Vikings were hoping Patterson could replace Percy Harvin, but he might have done them one better. Kicker Blair Walsh wasn't quite as good in his second season as he was as a rookie, missing three kicks from more than 50 yards as he struggled with a hamstring injury, but he still made 26 of his 30 field goals, and punt returner Marcus Sherels scored a touchdown.

The bad: As explosive as the Vikings' return game was, they also allowed plenty of big returns, including a punt return touchdown from Green Bay's Micah Hyde and a kick return touchdown from Baltimore's Jacoby Jones. Chicago's Devin Hester also had 249 kick return yards against the Vikings in Week 2, and in his one regular-season game with the Seahawks, Harvin had a 58-yard kick return against his former team. Punter Jeff Locke was also just OK as a rookie, finishing with the 25th-best gross average (44.2 yards per punt) and 18th-best net (39.2 yards) in the league.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Cullen Loeffler ($1.27 million), Walsh ($599,483), Locke ($541,048). The Vikings will have to think about their future at long snapper, where Loeffler has given them stability for 10 seasons. He will be a free agent after 2014, and while long snappers can play into their late 30s, it remains to be seen how long the 33-year-old Loeffler will want to play; it's possible he'd have a political career in his future. The Vikings have a kicker, punter and kick returner on rookie contracts, and while Sherels is a restricted free agent, it seems likely he'll be back.

Draft priority: Low. The Vikings will certainly draft players who will pitch in on special teams, but after taking a kicker and punter in their last two drafts, they'll almost certainly refrain from drafting another specialist this year.
MINNEAPOLIS -- It was in April 2012 at the University of Minnesota's Amplatz Children's Hospital, shortly after former Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson had signed with the Tennessee Titans, that Hutchinson pulled center John Sullivan aside and asked him to take the mantle of leadership for the Vikings' work with the hospital.

Sullivan had been going to charity events there since his rookie season, following a player he looked to as a mentor on and off the field, and Hutchinson knew he needed to ask a current player to keep the relationship with the hospital strong now that he was leaving. Sullivan was an easy choice.

"He asked me at Amplatz, at their annual event, WineFest," Sullivan said. "I was sitting with him -- he knew he was going to Tennessee, and he said, 'They'd like to have a current player hosting the events. I'd love it if you could take over.' I learned a lot from Steve -- how to go about handling myself here, and this being the right thing to do. He deserves some credit for that."

Sullivan dove into the work to such a degree that on Tuesday, at Amplatz Children's Hospital, the Vikings named him their 2013 Community Man of the Year, making him a nominee for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in February. Sullivan personally donated $150,000 toward the medically-friendly playground built in his name over the summer, has sponsored Halloween, Thanksgiving and December holiday parties over the past three years and is the celebrity chair for the hospital's golf event each year. On Tuesday, he hosted the 2013 holiday party with five other Vikings players -- quarterback Matt Cassel, punter Jeff Locke, wide receiver Jerome Simpson and offensive linemen Charlie Johnson, Matt Kalil and Kevin Murphy -- continuing a tradition passed to him by Hutchinson.

NFL teams are approached regularly with opportunities for charity work, and the Vikings are no different. But the relationship between a team and a charity tends to thrive when there's a player who's personally invested in it.

"There are so many great charities out there. There are so many things you want to do," Cassel said. "We get a lot of opportunities to go out to other guys' charities -- they might be passionate about something, where we might be more passionate about something else. But supporting each other -- because we've all been blessed to be put in this position to go and give back -- is a pretty special and unique opportunity for all of us."

Cassel has been involved with the NFL's Play 60 initiative to promote youth fitness since his time in Kansas City, and has continued his work there in Minnesota. That particular cause can travel with a player around the country, but something like a local children's hospital obviously cannot. In those cases, players often find a younger candidate to make sure the work continues after they're gone.

"Some of those charities, it's a great opportunity for guys to step in," Cassel said. "Maybe somebody's stepping out, and they need that void filled. John has done a remarkable job here, obviously."

Said Sullivan: "Just like I was here to support somebody hosting these events before, (my teammates) make this all possible. You need a lot of guys out here to support you and support this cause. It doesn't take much. It's a positive experience for everybody involved, so it's not a hard sell."
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."
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When the Vikings drafted UCLA punter Jeff Locke in the fifth round of last April's draft, ostensibly to replace Chris Kluwe, they made the move largely because of how they thought Locke could help them pin opponents deep in their own territory. Locke had a strong leg, but was also a skilled directional kicker and had learned the Aussie-style kicks favored by many punters for shorter kicks.

But Locke struggled early this season, and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer told the punter, as only he could, that Locke was "the dumbest smart guy I've ever met in my life.

"Because all he did was think," Priefer said, according to Derek Wetmore of 1500ESPN.com. "He was overthinking, overanalyzing everything and he just wasn't going out there and doing what he does. He's got a beautiful leg swing when the drop is closer to being perfect or perfect, we get what we want. And when it's not perfect, that's OK, that's football. He's just got to understand that he's going to be a more consistent punter when he approaches it that way."

Locke graduated from UCLA with a degree in economics, a 3.885 GPA and a banking internship. He helped publish a study on whether college athletes should be paid. There's no question the rookie punter is an intellectual, but that can sometimes backfire on athletes. Locke has put five punts inside the 20 in the last two games, and seems on his way to evening out his first season in the NFL. He was Priefer's handpicked punter before the draft, and the Vikings believe he can become one of the better specialists in the league, in time.

Here are today's other Vikings stories of note:

ATH: Pay college players, Peterson says

September, 20, 2013
Welcome to Around the Horns, our daily look at what's happening on the Vikings beat:

Good morning, and apologies for getting this to you later than usual -- it's been a chaotic morning at Around the Horns headquarters, but we're back on track and ready to serve you now.

Anyway, the top headline of the day comes from Bob Sansevere of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, who talked to Vikings running back Adrian Peterson about the ever-present issue of whether college players should be paid. Put the fomer Oklahoma running back and Heisman Trophy runner-up among the group that says yes.

"I definitely think they should be paid a little more -- some sort of monthly payment. Increase the stipend by $1,500 or $1,600," Peterson said. "Even more than that. (College football programs) make so much money, why not? Give guys something to look forward to."

It seems from Peterson's answer like he's talking about $1,500 or $1,600 a month more, not a one-time bump in that amount. That total would likely add a six-figure monthly bill to athletic departments, and there are many more nuanced models for paying college players than we're prepared to discuss here. The story includes opinions from a number of Vikings players, though, including punter Jeff Locke, who worked on the issue of athlete compensation as part of a college sports advocacy group when he was at UCLA.

Here are today's other Vikings stories of note: