"I've never thought using a draft pick on a kicker was a good idea."
Darren Campbell, Kick Ass Blog, April 29, 2012
Yes, I actually wrote that about five months ago when the Vikings used their sixth round pick in the NFL draft on Georgia kicker Blair Walsh (for proof, here is the post in its entirety).
In a year when the Vikings have already gotten ample production from three other draft picks – Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson – as well as occasional contributions in limited playing time from Rhett Ellison, Robert Blanton and Audie Cole – Walsh has been a revelation as a replacement for accurate but weak-legged veteran Ryan Longwell.
Coming off a senior season at Georgia where he missed 14 field goals, Walsh has been deadly accurate, nailing 12 of 13 field goals so far. His leg has been as strong as advertised. He's made all three of his field goal attempts from 50 yards or more. And he's been clutch. His 55 yard field goal with no time left in the game – a field goal the Vikings couldn't even have attempted if Longwell were still around – sent the season opener against Jacksonville into overtime. Walsh then drilled a 38 yarder in OT, the eventual game winner for the Vikings.
But field goals only tell part of the story of how valuable a weapon Walsh has been as the Vikings have sprinted to a surprising 4-1 start. Kickoffs also tell a tale of a player who is adding great value to the team.
In the Vikings five games, 16 of Walsh's 26 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks – approximately 62 per cent. Last year, Longwell had 19 touchbacks the entire season. On Walsh's 16 touchbacks, the Vikings opponents have not had a chance to return the kickoff and instead have been forced to take the ball on their own 20 yard line and march 80 yards to score a touchdown.
This is important not just because the touchbacks force the opponent to manufacture long drives to score points, but also because the Vikings kickoff coverage teams have been solid, but hardly infallible the first five games of the 2012 season.
In the 24-13 win over San Francisco, the 49ers Kyle Williams returned two consecutive kickoffs 94 and 50 yards, respectively. And against Tennessee, ex-Viking Darius Reynaud had returns of 32 and 31 yards.
However, it's not just the depth Walsh is getting on his kickoffs that is impressive. It's also the hangtime. As Tom Pelissero noted in his weekly review of the game tape from the Vikings 30-7 shellacking of the Titans, Walsh's average hangtime on his seven kickoffs was 4.2 seconds. This gives his coverage team plenty of time to get down the field and meet the opponent's return man before he's got a full head of steam. Walsh's booming kickoffs are allowing the Vikings to win the field position battle against their opponents. It's one of the those little things that can go unnoticed as we marvel at the play of Percy Harvin and the improvement of Christian Ponder and the Vikings defense. But it's one of a number of little things that can add up to victories for the team that's doing them. In this case, that team happens to be the Minnesota Vikings.
I don't think we can say Blair Walsh is the Vikings most valuable rookie with the way Kalil and Smith have played so far this season. But the fact he's even in the conversation – and I think he should be – shows just how good he's been.