Vikings use Harvin's versatility
Harvin's value to Vikings comes with a balance
Published: Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at 3:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at 3:44 p.m.
MANKATO, Minn. — Percy Harvin's kickoff returning ability turned into a hidden talent last year.
After bringing back the season's opening kick for a 103-yard touchdown, Harvin, a standout at the University of Florida, had only 15 other chances the rest of the way because of the NFL's new touchback-friendly rules and the coaching staff's conservative use of Minnesota's most versatile offensive player.
This time, the Vikings sound like they're ready to let Harvin show off more of that skill.
Of the eight longest kickoff returns in Vikings history, Harvin has four, all 95 yards or more. His 32.5-yard per-return average last season was the highest in the NFL among those with more than five attempts.
“We're going to have a good plan with Percy this year. He is our number one kickoff returner,” special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. “When we have the opportunity to use him, we're going to use him. If he's not back there for whatever reason, we're going to train two or three other guys to make sure we have a capable backup, and we'll go from there.”
Rookie Josh Robinson and Jarius Wright are two intriguing candidates, but Harvin will always be the favorite provided he's not too worn out or beat up from his duties as a receiver and a runner. He carried the ball 52 times and caught 87 passes last season, a total of 50 more touches than the year before. Plus, there's his physically punishing running style and history of migraine headaches.
The precaution toward balancing his roles has been the team's preference, not his. He'd rather be out there all the time.
“He's a guy who goes so hard that you don't want to jeopardize what he can give you, in totality,” coach Leslie Frazier said.
Harvin's expression of unspecified discontent with the organization during minicamp raised questions about his desire for a contract extension, with two seasons remaining on his rookie deal. As dazzling of a returner he can be, his impact in those situations was minimized even before the Vikings reduced his exposure. Harvin accounted for 75 percent of the team's kickoff returns in 2009, 63 percent in 2010 and just 30 percent in 2011.
To try to prevent dangerous injuries, the league pushed kickoffs up to the 35-yard line from the 30, making it much easier for kicks to sail into the back or out of the end zone. The total number of touchdowns dropped from 23 in 2010 to nine in 2011. The touchback-per-kickoff rate soared from 16.3 percent in 2010 to 43.5 percent in 2011.
“It's definitely frustrating,” Harvin said. “By the time you get to the 10-yard line you've got pretty much every defender already down there.”
But the NFL's committee on head, neck and spine issues reported a 40 percent reduction in reported concussions during kickoffs in 2011.
For all the complaints from coaches, players and fans about the elimination of an exciting play, extra-long kickoff returns increased as players became more tempted to take back kickoffs that reached the middle or the back of the end zone. There were eight kickoff returns for touchdowns of 100-plus yards last year, the most in NFL history. Four of the nine scores were from 105 or more yards.
“We thought the rule worked well,” league spokesman Greg Aiello said.
No matter how many times Harvin returns a kickoff this season, his health and happiness are important for a team that needs him to be just as productive as he was before. Frazier had several conversations with Harvin during the spring and summer, a chance for Harvin to “lay it all on the line,” as he put it.
“That's the thing you like out of your coach, and that's my most of my teammates love him,” Harvin said, describing Frazier as “like a father figure” to him.
He added: “We're all on the same page. ... I'm here to do whatever the team needs me to.”
That's what the coach wants to hear.
“He came in such great shape, and his attitude is so good,” Frazier said. “Players feed off that. Because he's an excellent player.”
Notes: Frazier said Monday that DB Nick Taylor, a former basketball player at Florida International signed earlier this year, has a torn labrum in his shoulder that will require major surgery. Taylor was released, and DB Chris Stroud was signed. Stroud was at the rookie tryout camp in May. ... Robinson, the team's third-round draft pick, has been held out of practice since hurting his hamstring Friday. It's not torn, just tweaked, Frazier said, but he's still being evaluated on a day to day basis.