EAGAN — The lead-up to the Minnesota Vikings’ matchup with the Green Bay Packers has focused around two things: Playoff positioning and Mike Boone.
The second-year running back will get a chance to play a significant role in one of the NFL’s top rivalries with Pro Bowler Dalvin Cook sidelined due to injury. With only 21 carries on the year, fantasy football fans everywhere were Googling furiously to learn about the former Cincinnati Bearcat.
But he’s been on the field a bunch this year — for 248 snaps, in fact. Of those, 212 have come on special teams.
Boone is just the latest example of a player earning a job on the special teams side and eventually working their way to a role on the offensive or defensive side.
“I think that’s an area that as guys progress, they start learning the special teams,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “There’s quite a bit involved there as well. You see their athletic ability. You see them making plays. I think that leads to guys that end up becoming starters. We’ve got all kinds of guys, Eric Wilson, Anthony Harris, there’s all kinds of guys, C.J. (Ham)… that’s kind of where they made their mark and typically it turns into them being a good full-time position player.”
Wilson, Harris and Ham are joined by the likes of Adam Thielen, Stephen Weatherly and even Everson Griffen as players who showed they could stand out on special teams before they earned regular — and sometimes starring — roles.
For veteran Ameer Abdullah, the journey has been somewhat backwards. He was always a kick returner but had a spot in the Detroit Lions’ offense in his first three seasons and now largely plays special teams for the Vikings. He explained how younger players can make their mark on things like kickoff and punt coverage.
“For one, keeping the competitive mindset,” he said. “There’s only so many slots for people who can make the team and when you talk about actually fielding a team on gameday it’s 46 guys. Just by sheer numbers you understand you aren’t always going to be in there especially early in your career or you’re in a situation with a lot of talented or established players in front of you. You just do your job and watch the guys in front of you and whenever your number is called, just be ready.”
Last year when starting safety Andrew Sendejo went down with an injury, Anthony Harris was ready. Harris had spent the majority of his first three seasons as a special teamer and then stepped into the starting job and has quickly become a difference maker on the Vikings’ defense. He has five interceptions this year and ranks fourth at his position by PFF’s grading system.
Eric Wilson was ready both last year and in 2019 when Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks suffered injury after he spent the entire 2017 season on the special teams side. In 2018, Stephen Weatherly stepped in for Everson Griffen for a month and has now earned a regular rotational spot. And CJ Ham is the second most used fullback in the NFL.
Often times a player’s willingness to give the same effort on special teams as they would on offense or defense says something about their awareness. They get it. They see the big picture.
“Just from my perspective, this is a great job,” Abdullah said. “Just from a capitalistic standpoint, nothing is going to play you more than what you’re getting paid out here to do to play a game. I don’t care if you’re doctor, unless you’re a crazy surgeon or something…also understanding that it’s the NFL and people get hurt every week.”
The Vikings have used special teams as a place to put players who they feel have potential but might not be ready. Or veterans like Abdullah who are reliable and can play the offensive role if needed but the starting spot is already filled.
“You are here for a reason,” Abdullah said. “I don’t think anyone is here to play special teams. I think everyone is here to fill the team to the best of their ability and the guys upstairs and coaching staff they fill the team trying to fill positions, understanding that if hypothetically [injury] happens, I want a guy who I trust. A guy who is talented enough to get the job done. Our team is put together just as such.”
There are several other players aside from Boone who the team is excited about because of their special teams performance. At the top of that list is Kris Boyd, a seventh-round pick from Texas who has 253 snaps between kick coverage, returns and field goal blocking.
“[Boyd] is an unbelievable guy, he’s come a long way for a rookie, he really has,” special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf said. “I think he leads our team in special teams tackles right now, and he’s really honed in his technique a lot. He’s bought into it since really day one, and I think he’s just gotten better every week. We’ve been giving him some reps, he’s one of our gunners, and he’s done a really good job. It’s kind of fun to watch him and see what he does next, really.”
Boyd sees this season just like his freshman year in college, where the starting defensive jobs went to seniors and juniors and the freshman worked on ‘teams.
“I just see it as playing football,” Boyd said. “Special teams is part of the game. I played it in high school and college. When I got here to the league, it wasn’t new to me. I’m such a high competitor that I just want to get out there and many as many plays as I can and help contribute to my team and anything coaches have to say to help me and any tools that I can use, I’m all ears. Always listening, from coaches to the vets. Anyone in this locker room who can help.”
When he isn’t playing the gunner role on special teams, Boyd is working scout team, which is also a player development machine. He goes up against Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen on a regular basis in practice.
“Whenever I can get one-on-one reps with them, I’m telling them, ‘give me a good release or something, give me something to work on my craft,’ any time I can get a man-press on them, that’s when we get work in,” Boyd said. “I enjoy every minute of it.”
Considering the high rate of ‘teamers-to-starters success stories on the Vikings, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Boyd be next at some point in the near future. For now, of course, he will have to worry about the Packers like everybody else.