TThe Vikings didn’t need to go far in searching for kickoff returners. They found two in Iowa.
With the No. 119 pick in the fourth round of the NFL draft, the Vikings on Saturday selected Iowa State running back Kene Nwangwu. He ran for just 339 yards last season but averaged 28.9 yards on kickoff returns.
Less than two hours later, the Vikings selected Iowa wide receiver Ihmire Smith-Marsette with the No. 157 pick in the fifth round. He caught 106 passes in his Hawkeyes career and could contend to be Minnesota’s No. 3 receiver but he also averaged 26.7 yards on kickoff returns and returned two for touchdowns.
“We did struggle on special teams last year,’’ said Vikings general manager Rick Spielman. “I know we wanted to put an emphasis on upgrading our return units. … We weren’t explosive enough last year in our return game. … We feel we have added some explosive play makers.”
The Vikings have had issues returning kickoffs since Cordarrelle Patterson, one of the best in NFL history, left the team as a free agent four years ago. For the last three seasons, their primary kickoff returner has been running back Ameer Abdullah, but he has been nothing special. In last year’s draft, the Vikings took receiver K.J. Osborn in the fifth round to primarily returns kickoffs and punts, but he did little as a rookie.
Minnesota also has had issues with punt returns in recent years. Neither Nwangwu nor Smith-Marsette returned punts in college but both could be tried there.
One thing is for sure. The Iowa-Iowa State rivalry will extend to a battle in training camp to return kickoffs.
“I can play outside, inside, in the slot, I can stretch the field and make short plays into long ones (as a receiver),’’ Smith-Marsette said. “In the return game, I feel as though I was the best player in the draft when it comes to returning the ball.’’
Nwangwu also likes what he can do in the return game.
“I wanted to develop my skills as kick returner and be the best in the nation,” Nwangwu said. “I tried to do that and I became the best kick returner at Iowa State.’’
Both are speedy. Nwangwu said his best time in the 40-yard dash has been 4.25 seconds. Smith-Marsette was clocked at 4.43 seconds at his pro day.
With their six picks on the final day of the draft, the Vikings took three on offense and three on defense. The other offensive player selected was Central Missouri tight end Zach Davidson, who went No. 168 in the fifth round.
Defensive selections Saturday were California safety Camryn Bynum (fourth round, No. 125), Florida State defensive end Janarius Robinson (fourth, No. 134) and Pittsburgh defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman (sixth, No. 199). Bynum played cornerback in college, and worked out at both cornerback and safety at the Senior Bowl.
“When we went back and did our group studies, we felt he had the athletic skill set we look at and the instincts to play in the deep half of the field,’’ Spielman said.
The Vikings didn’t draft a cornerback but Spielman said they will be “pretty aggressive” looking at that position among undrafted free agents.
Robinson will compete to start at defensive end after having three sacks in nine games last season. The Vikings landed another intriguing pass rusher Saturday in Twyman, who had 10 ½ in 1999 before opting out of last season. Twyman was a college teammate of Patrick Jones II, a defensive end selected by Minnesota in the third round Friday.
The Vikings had kicked off the draft by taking Virginia Tech tackle Christian Darrisaw in Thursday’s first round. In addition to Jones, they selected Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond, North Carolina linebacker Chazz Surratt and Ohio State guard Wright Davis in Friday’s third round.
Overall, they drafted 11 players, six on offense and five on defense. They didn’t have a seventh-round pick because it was forfeited in March due to a 2019 salary-cap violation.
“We felt most of the players that were going to come in and help us were in the middle part of that third-, fourth-, fifth-round area,’’ Spielman, who used nine picks in those three rounds.
Perhaps the most intriguing player selected was Davidson, who was both a star tight end and punter at Division II Central Missouri. But even though Spielman said the Vikings need help on special teams, including giving a “guarantee” he will look for a kicker in free agency to battle Greg Joseph, there are no plans now for Davidson to be used as a punter.