The Vikings finished the NFL draft on Saturday with an eye on special teams, where at least half of the six players selected in the later rounds can help turn things around.
Last season was dismal for Minnesota’s special teams, from misfiring field goals to poor kick coverage and return phases. Coordinator Marwan Maalouf was let go and replaced by Ryan Ficken, who already knows a few of the Vikings’ late-round picks after interviewing them during the draft process.
“We did struggle on special teams last year,” General Manager Rick Spielman said, “but when you have the type of athletes we were able to get in the third day of the draft this year, nine times out of 10 those guys end up playing and performing well on special teams.”
The Vikings added two proven kick returners in fourth-round running back Kene Nwangwu (Iowa State) and fifth-round receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette (Iowa). Ficken also met with fourth-round safety Camryn Bynum, who could help on coverage teams, before the Vikings drafted him Saturday.
“We circled the Vikings as a high place where I could go,” Nwangwu said, pointing to Minnesota’s job openings on special teams.
But if you ask his mother, “definitely the NFL would be a Plan B,” added Nwangwu, a mechanical engineering major at Iowa State.
“They all came to America [from Nigeria] in their mid-20s,” he said of his parents. “They came here to get a higher education. My dad has a business finance degree, my mom went premed; she has a master’s as a nurse practitioner. But for me, I always wanted to play football.”
The Vikings are still searching for a kick returner after cycling through receiver K.J. Osborn and running back Ameer Abdullah with unspectacular results. Smith-Marsette could also compete as a punt returner, according to Spielman, who said the Vikings sought “explosive playmakers” on Saturday as competition.
Nwangwu, who ranked seventh nationally averaging 28.9 yards on kick returns last year, was clocked at a 4.32-second 40-yard dash during his Cyclones pro day. Smith-Marsette ran 4.43 at Iowa’s pro day.
The Vikings aren’t done, as Spielman guaranteed they’ll sign a kicker to compete with journeyman Greg Joseph.
“I can guarantee you we’ll have kicking competition,” Spielman said.
What about cornerback?The Vikings didn’t draft a cornerback, but Spielman said they’ll be “pretty aggressive” in trying to outbid other NFL teams to sign a top undrafted cornerback this weekend. The team added veteran Patrick Peterson and reunited with Mackensie Alexander in free agency before standing pat in the draft.
“We’re probably going to be pretty aggressive in the college free agency, see where that goes,” Spielman said. “We were excited about the progress that Harrison Hand made last year. We drafted three corners last year, [and have] Kris Boyd, so we have some pretty good depth.”
Cooling offBynum, a safety drafted in the fourth round, said new teammate Harrison Smith might get “annoyed and bothered” by how often the rookie plans to ask questions of the All-Pro veteran.
Smith can apparently throw him in a lake. Bynum, the California native, rented a lakeside cabin at Big Bear, Calif., for his draft party. After the Vikings took Bynum with the 20th pick of the day, his group waited through a media call before celebrating outside.
“All 40 of us are going to go jump in the lake right now,” Bynum said. “It’s pretty cold, the water is like 5 degrees.”