NFC North: David Buehler

I realize most of Minnesota, and a good portion of the NFC North, is focused on Monday's scheduled debate and vote on the Minnesota Vikings stadium bill. But I'm told by sources close to the situation that the Vikings held a three-day rookie minicamp over the weekend, and while it's dangerous to read much of anything into what happens at such events, two items jumped out to me in reviewing accounts of the weekend.

First, the Vikings will start off fifth-round choice Robert Blanton at safety rather than cornerback, immediately escalating his chances of making the team and seeing the field in 2012. As coach Leslie Frazier told reporters, the Vikings finished 2011 without an established starter at either safety position. "We want an open competition," Frazier said.

The Vikings have not yet re-signed 2011 starter Husain Abdullah, who struggled with concussions last season. That leaves Blanton to compete with Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond for the spot opposite the one likely to be held by first-round draft choice Harrison Smith.

Second, there was no mistaking that the Vikings drafted Georgia place-kicker Blair Walsh to mount a serious threat at incumbent Ryan Longwell, who only a year ago signed a multiyear contract that included a $3.5 million signing bonus.

Over the weekend, Ben of Chicago wondered if the Vikings wanted to use Walsh as a kickoff specialist, one who would justify his roster spot by limiting the number of coverage specialists the Vikings might need to keep. Frazier said that scenario is "possible" but made clear "it's not in the game plan right now."

As we discussed over draft weekend, teams don't use draft picks on place-kickers without a significant purpose. In recent history, it's usually been either to unseat an incumbent or to fill an obvious hole.

In the five drafts between 2007 and 2011, NFL teams drafted eight place-kickers. Seven of them appeared on their team's roster at some point during their rookie season, although one of them -- David Buehler of the Dallas Cowboys -- was strictly a kickoff specialist.

Longwell will turn 38 in August, but I wouldn't consider replacing him to be atop the Vikings' list of needs. Still, Frazier said "we are obviously going to take a close look" at Walsh this summer in training camp. Stay tuned on that one.

Pushoff 2010: Harvin vs. Buehler

January, 16, 2010
If you’re into special teams matchups, there will be a fascinating dynamic in play Sunday at the Metrodome.

Minnesota rookie Percy Harvin made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner this season, but he was almost a non-factor during the second half of the season as opponents intentionally kicked away from him via squibs or short, high kicks. Here is how Harvin’s season broke down:

Games 1-8: 30.7-yard average on 28 returns, two touchdowns
Games 9-16: 21.1-yard average on 14 returns, no touchdowns

The Vikings have had eight kickoffs returned by blockers over that stretch, including five by tight end Jeff Dugan. Lately, they’ve been using punt returner Darius Reynaud as an upback to give them a more explosive alternative.

On the other hand, the Cowboys employ kickoff specialist David Buehler, who has one of the strongest legs in the NFL. Buehler led the league with 29 touchbacks during the regular season and had three last week in the Cowboys’ wild-card playoff victory over Philadelphia.

I, for one, will be interested to see if the Cowboys will let Buehler kick deep or if they’ll join previous Vikings opponents and keep the ball away from Harvin. I bet the Vikings would be more than willing to let Harvin return the ball from relatively deep in the end zone.

Speaking to Minnesota reporters this week, special teams coordinator Brian Murphy said Harvin will use the lettering of Vikings logo in the end zone as a “warning track” for returning the ball. But Harvin has also been told to judge whether a deep kick is still returnable based on hang time and trajectory.

“Not all of them are going to be touchbacks,” Murphy said. “We need to take advantage of it when it is a returnable ball.”

Just another nugget to consider with the opening kickoff 27 hours away.