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A rookie could be the heir to Vikings' throne of royal return men

MINNEAPOLIS -- It's been nearly a decade since the Minnesota Vikings had to worry about whether they'd start drives in prime field position.

First, it was Percy Harvin establishing himself as one of the most dynamic return men in the league, taking back five kicks for touchdowns from 2009-12. Then, it was Cordarrelle Patterson leading the league in return average during three of his four years in Minnesota, earning two All-Pro honors and scoring five kick return TDs of his own.

Since the Vikings drafted Harvin in 2009, they've enjoyed premium field position after kickoffs more often than almost any team in the league. According to ESPN Stats and Information, the last time the Vikings didn't rank in the top 10 in average field position after a kick return was 2008. Since then, they've been first, seventh, third, third, first, sixth, first and second during their eight years of Harvin and Patterson.

Now, with Patterson in Oakland, the Vikings will have to determine whether they've got a return man capable of staking them to the same advantage. Wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs have experience as returners, but both might be too valuable to the offense to be employed on kick returns. Running back Jerick McKinnon could fall in the same category. Rather, the Vikings' next return man might be one of the two receivers they took on the third day of the draft.

Rodney Adams, a fifth-round pick from South Florida, returned 46 kicks in college, averaging 29.1 yards a return and scoring a touchdown as a junior. Stacy Coley, whom the Vikings picked in the seventh round out of Miami, averaged 24.3 yards on 47 career returns for the Hurricanes, scoring once in 2014.

Both have the speed for the job, with 40-yard dash times under 4.45 seconds. Both will likely get chances to take the job. And both would be counted on to continue a legacy of high-performance returners.

"Both of them are very explosive athletes, have excellent speed," general manager Rick Spielman said on Saturday. "Adams, is kind of a slot receiver, you watch him on tape, and he’s making big plays all the time. They’re running jet sweeps and for a tall, linear kid, he gets hit, and he’ll bounce right back up. But, we watch all their returns, and we even went back if they didn’t return this year we got back to 2014, 2015, whatever we have to do to find those returns. We think both have explosive play-making ability as kickoff returners."

Spielman said the Vikings keep a separate board for kick returners and punt returners, apart from their regular draft board, and spent three hours last Friday night scouring their options for potential successors to Patterson.

"We kind of tie those two boards in together with what they are as a position, and I know we wanted to make sure we had some potential guys that can step in and fill in as a kickoff returner," Spielman said. "I think some of these guys can be potential punt returners down the road as well. So it’ll all be open competition."

During the Vikings' era of dominant return men, they've had more than a few offenses that could use a boost to start a drive. With Patterson's run ending after four years, just as Harvin's did, it could be up to one of the Vikings' two rookies to provide the same kind of edge.