Chris Kluwe's eventful run as Minnesota Vikings punter may have come to an end on the final day of the NFL draft on Saturday.
The Vikings selected UCLA punter Jeff Locke in the fifth round, perhaps paving the way for the outspoken Kluwe's exit after eight seasons in Minnesota. In his later years, Kluwe became a vocal advocate for gay rights, a thorn in the side of the NFL establishment and a player who never subscribed the mantra "punters should be seen and not heard."
"I'm hoping I get a chance to compete," Kluwe said in a phone interview. "If not, we all get cut eventually and I'll just have to go and find another job."
Kluwe averaged 39.7 yards per punt, which was the best net average of his career but ranked 17th league-wide. He didn't always see eye-to-eye with straight-laced special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, who said late last season that he was getting tired of Kluwe's public stances after the punter was fined for covering a Hall of Fame patch on his jersey with a sign that read "Vote Ray Guy" to protest the lack of punters in the Hall.
Kluwe, who is scheduled to make $1.45 million this year, said he thinks it would be a shame if he were to get cut because of his views, but said he wasn't sure if that was factoring into any decision. Now a similar scenario appears to be unfolding this season that did last year with veteran kicker Ryan Longwell. The Vikings drafted Georgia kicker Blair Walsh in the sixth round last season and cut Longwell before training camp.
"The only thing I can do is keep doing what I've been doing and punting to the best of my ability," Kluwe said. "Statistically, I've been the best punter the Vikings have ever had."
General manager Rick Spielman declined to comment on Kluwe's future, but he did say that Kluwe's outspoken nature would have nothing to do with the decision to keep him or cut him.
"I have no issues if Chris Kluwe wants to express his opinion," Spielman said. "That's his right. That's his freedom of speech. This is just a football decision to bring in a guy and come in and compete."
Locke has a career average of 44.23 yards per punt, which is second in UCLA history, just ahead of Kluwe. He said he was told by Vikings coaches to get ready to come in and compete for the job.
"I just know I'm competing," Locke said. "I talked to coach Priefer and he just said to come in and be ready to work. That's what I'm going with."
After sitting out the second day of the NFL draft thanks to a big trade, the Vikings started the final day in search of a linebacker to help round out an incomplete group.
No better place to go than Linebacker U.
The Vikings selected Penn State linebacker Gerald Hodges with the 120th overall selection in the fourth round, and later added his teammate Michael Mauti with pick No. 213 in the seventh round. They also bolstered their depth on the offensive line with sixth-rounder Jeff Baca (196), who can play all three spots on the line, of UCLA, seventh-round guard Travis Bond (214) of North Carolina and Florida State defensive tackle Everett Dawkins with their last pick of the day at No. 229.
Adding Hodges brings a versatile player to a group that currently lacks a starter in the middle after Jasper Brinkley left for Arizona. Then the Vikings rolled the dice by using one of their three seventh-rounders on Mauti, a highly touted linebacker who tore his left ACL twice and his right one once in his college career.
"Man there's no better feeling in the world," Hodges said. "I'm talking weight-off-my-shoulders type of feeling. ... I just started crying, man. I couldn't believe it. It's just a blessing."
Listed at 6-foot-1 and 243 pounds, Hodges had 5½ sacks in his college career for the Nittany Lions. He started his college career as a safety before being moved to linebacker. He played primarily on the outside, but said he would feel comfortable playing inside as well. He played middle linebacker at the East-West Shrine game.
"They really liked me and they told me, 'You've got a chance to really come in here and make an impact for us,'" Hodges said. "I told them, 'Whatever you guys need me to do, whatever you guys want me to do, I'm ready to do it.' I'm ready to be a Viking. I'm ready to get started."
If the Vikings choose to keep Hodges outside, they could move veteran Erin Henderson to the middle to fill out a group that includes Pro Bowler Chad Greenway. Mauti missed the entire 2009 season and most of 2011 while recovering from knee injuries only to suffer a third ACL tear late in his senior season that prevented him from participating in most of the NFL combine. He said he plans to be ready for training camp.
The Vikings did not have a selection during the second and third rounds on Friday night after trading those picks, plus their first fourth-rounder and a seventh-rounder, to New England on Thursday night to move up and take Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. The Vikings also grabbed Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes in the first round, making them the first team since the Rams in 2001 to have three first-round picks.