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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Special teams has been a proving ground for Vikings starters

By Matthew Coller

EAGAN, Minn. — Since the Minnesota Vikings signed Anthony Harris as an undrafted free agent in 2015, he’s been a special teamer and just-in-case option.

They have tried to replace him as the backup to starting safety Andrew Sendejo. In the seventh round of the 2016 draft, the Vikings picked up Jayron Kearse, who entered a game in Philadelphia when Kearse got hurt. Ultimately the job went to Harris a week later. Before the start of this year, the Vikings signed veteran safety George Iloka. When Sendejo went down, the two backup safeties split the gig until Harris won out again.

Now with Sendejo on injured reserve, the job belongs to Harris, who is finally getting his shot to start consistently for the first time in his four NFL season and at age 27. And he’s played exceptionally well, picking off three passes and allowing just one catch on five targets his way.

“Anthony‘s done a good job,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s a very smart player, very visual, sees things well so he can anticipate and get breaks, very rarely does he make mistakes.”

While other safeties came and went in training camp throughout the years like current 49er Antone Exum, Harris kept winning backup jobs in part because of his special teams prowess. He has been a regular on kick return, kickoff coverage, punt return and punt coverage throughout his entire career.

“When he gets an opportunity to go into the game he makes plays typically,” Zimmer said. “Had a couple games two years ago and he had a couple last year, he’s had a couple this year. I think it’s probably confidence and understanding the system a little bit better.”

Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said one of the best parts of his job is to see players like Harris grow into bigger contributors.

“Probably about three or four weeks ago in a special teams meeting I said, ‘the fun thing for me as a coach is to see these young men develop as special teams players and they last in the league and they’re contributing on special teams and they play at a high level and then they contribute on offense and defense,’” Priefer said. “When C.J. Ham catches that ball on the flat the other day against Green Bay, I’m like, ‘That’s a teamer.’ Anthony Harris has two picks against Chicago, that’s a teamer.”

The Vikings have had a tendency to find players who start as “teamers” and work their way into offensive and defensive roles. In 2015, Adam Thielen, who now leads the NFL with 93 receptions, played at least 60 snaps on each side of kickoffs and punts. Starting corner Trae Waynes was the team’s top special teams tackler in his rookie year.

The examples are everywhere. Kearse is now part of a “big nickel” package used by Zimmer in certain situations and linebacker Eric Wilson stepped in for injured Anthony Barr for three games earlier this year. He made the team in 2017 because of his strong special teams play.

“For me, it’s very rewarding to see those guys that last in the league five, six, seven, eight, nine years and contribute on special teams when they are called upon in certain phases, but still do a great job for us on offense and defense,” Priefer said. “That’s fun. That’s a great question. I like answering that question because I’m real proud of those guys.”

In training camp, Priefer said that rookie Holton Hill helped his cause in preseason with an excellent kick return. The undrafted cornerback has 344 snaps this season, 201 of which have come on special teams. With star corner Xavier Rhodes battling a hamstring injury, there’s a chance Hill may have to start on Sunday against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

If a young player can provide the team with strong special teams play, it also gives them an opportunity to practice on a daily basis on offense or defensive scout team and improve their game without being thrown to the wolves. Zimmer said he’s seen Hill’s knowledge of the game grow throughout the season.

“He’s got a lot of really good competitiveness,” Zimmer said. “Obviously, he’s a really good athlete and I think that the more, and more, and more he continues to learn about the game of football, because most of these guys when they come in as rookies they don’t understand football. A lot of them understand their position or they might understand the secondary, but they don’t understand football. So when you’re trying to take young guys and you’re trying to teach them about what offenses are trying to do, how they’re trying to attack you, how the defense is trying to combat that – all those things that really make a difference.”

The Vikings won’t just need their former special teamers to step up against the Patriots, but current ones as well. They will be facing off with the NFL’s best kick returner in Cordarrelle Patterson, who averages 30.9 yards per return.

Special teams players like who haven’t yet seen much offensive or defensive action receiver Brandon Zylstra and rookie linebacker Devante Downs will have a chance to mark a small mark while hoping to be the next Anthony Harris.

The post Special teams has been a proving ground for Vikings starters appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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