Vikings emphasize special teams as receiver battles take shape

EAGAN, Minn. -- Brandon Zylstra was in the middle of an interview post-walk-through when Minnesota Vikings special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer delivered a message in passing.

"Special teams win championships," Priefer said to the receiver before walking off the indoor practice field.

Complementary football holds particular importance in the preseason, as players on the verge of making the 53-man roster aim to show all the ways they can stand out. For Minnesota’s deep crop of receivers -- 12 of them among the 90 players in training camp -- that may come down to being part of various personnel groupings on kickoff, punt and field goal units.

"[Stefon] Diggs and [Adam] Thielen are going to be in there all the time, so who we dress on Sunday will be determined a lot by who can play special teams, because I’m not going to have guys standing on the sideline that can’t play special teams," coach Mike Zimmer said.

Behind Minnesota’s top receiving duo, no jobs are set in stone. Laquon Treadwell, the Vikings' 2016 first-round pick, took first-team reps throughout the spring offseason program and during the first two weeks of camp, standing out as the current lead candidate for the No. 3 receiver position.

Treadwell’s impact on offense was limited during his first two seasons (21 catches for 215 yards), but he accounted for 10 percent of special teams snaps in 2017. A lot can change over the next three weeks, which is where players’ contributions in areas other than offense may come into play.

"It’s huge," Diggs said. "If you’re not one, two or three, maybe even three sometimes, you have to play special teams. I’ve been there, everybody’s been there. It comes down to it, your best players have to play special teams and if I came down to where I had to play, I would play."

In Minnesota’s 42-28 preseason win over Denver, six different receivers recorded snaps on special teams, two of whom also helped the Vikings wrestle back the lead late when the third-team offense was on the field.

After Chad Beebe caught a 9-yard touchdown pass from Kyle Sloter, which was followed up by Jeff Badet’s two-point conversion, both rookies hustled from celebrating with their teammates to lining up with the kickoff unit.

"Coach Zimmer let it be known that those four, five, six receivers are going to have to play a lot of special teams," Badet said last week. "That’s just something that we knew coming in that if we want to get on the field, we have to get on special teams."

Zylstra, who was held out of Saturday’s game with an undisclosed injury, played a sizable role on special teams during his one season in the CFL, returning 22 punts for 151 yards and four kickoffs for 80 yards for the Edmonton Eskimos.

Last week, Priefer had the 25-year-old receiver try out a new skill: holding for extra points.

Zylstra has emerged as one of the top camp receivers, while Badet stood out with his 4.3 speed. Though their odds of making the team are considerably different, they present skills that could prove beneficial on special teams.

"Brandon Zylstra’s 215 pounds -- you’re going to look for him to play in some of the linebacker type spots or safety type spots that I would ask an Anthony Harris or Jayron Kearse to fill those roles," Priefer said. "A guy like Jeff Badet, he’s a smaller, quicker athlete with great speed. So he might be playing some of the roles that Marcus Sherels might be playing in coverage. It depends on the athlete himself, not so much the position he plays on offense or defense but the athlete himself."

Behind Diggs, Stacy Coley led all wideouts with two catches for 23 yards on Saturday, including an early third-down conversion and a 19-yard snag from Trevor Siemian. While it may be difficult for receivers to carve out a role on kickoff and punt returns given the battle there between Sherels and first-round cornerback Mike Hughes, Coley stood in as a returner on Saturday but did not take the ball out of the end zone.

Neither Treadwell or Kendall Wright showed much on offense in Denver, recording one catch each. Treadwell led all receivers with 41 snaps, a workload that kept him from seeing time on special teams as he handled a bulk of the downfield blocking on offense.

Wright, who came to Minnesota eyeing the No. 3 receiver job, has been primarily with the second-team offense as a slot receiver. He took more snaps than any other receiver in Chicago last season and didn’t see any action on special teams. In order to make the roster in Minnesota, that’s probably going to have to change or he "probably won’t dress on game day," Zimmer said.