Minnesota Vikings: Could Jeff Locke really improve?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

The Minnesota Vikings appear set to roll into training camp with Jeff Locke as the only punter, but could that decision come back to haunt them?

For a team like the Vikings, field position is the name of the game. Leaning on a dominant defense and a punishing rushing attack, the Vikings play an old-school style of football. Rather than opening up the offense with deep passes and getting into shoot-outs, the team opts to move the ball methodically, control the clock, and trust the defense to make stops.

For that brand of football to work, it is crucial to pin the opponent deep in their territory and start with positive field position for the offense.

Unfortunately, due to the inconsistent leg of punter Jeff Locke, the Vikings couldn’t do that with any regularity.

Locke had a truly awful year, consistently displaying poor touch and power on his kicks and apparently proving to be one of the worst— if not the worst— punters in the league. With his gross punting average of 41.6 ranking worst in the NFL and his net punting average of 37.8 ranking third-worst, it seemed abundantly clear that Locke wasn’t getting the job done.

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Yet despite Locke’s terrible numbers, the coaching staff has remained surprisingly confident in the fourth-year punter. After showing only cursory interest in a few undrafted rookies, the Vikings appear ready to go into training camp with Jeff Locke as the only punter on the roster.

Unlike most fans and media experts, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer still sees potential in Locke (via ESPN):

"“He’s a very good punter. People want to look at the total numbers and the raw numbers from last year, but he punted in TCF for eight regular season games and a playoff game. And if you compare the numbers to the other guys on those certain days, he punted just as good as or better than the rest of them, and his indoor punts were phenomenal last year, the three games indoors. I feel very confident about Jeff going forward.”"

On the surface, Priefer appears to have a point. Playing outdoors at TCF Bank Stadium is very difficult, with the cold and windy conditions interfering with punts and kicks. However, Priefer’s claims about Jeff Locke’s performance don’t stand true when examined closer.

Even when looking only at the nine games at TCF bank stadium, Locke’s gross average of 41 yards per punt was lower than the opponents’ average of 41.6. Furthermore, Locke landed seven fewer punts inside the 20 yard-line than opponents and booted four more touchbacks. While Locke’s punting compared slightly more favorably when looking only at TCF games, he was still outperformed by opponents, contrary to Priefer’s claims.

Priefer’s second point also rings as only a partial truth. While Locke’s indoor punts were indeed far better, they weren’t exactly phenomenal. Over three indoor games, Locke averaged 46 yards per punt, a mark that would have tied for 13th among punters. Although that mark is far better than Locke’s total production, it still only barely puts him in the top half of the league and comes from a very small sample size.

While moving indoors will certainly help Jeff Locke, it’s unlikely that it will make him anything more than an average punter.

Even after looking deeper into the statistics, the coaching staff’s continued confidence in Locke doesn’t really make sense. The only possible explanation is that the coaching staff believes that Locke’s problems are largely mental, and that supporting him will help him overcome them.

After three years in the league, however, it certainly seems like Locke is who he is.

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While moving indoors should lead to a spike in Locke’s production, possibly even making him a league-average punter, it seems like the Vikings are making a mistake by not even bringing in competition.