Deep into last week’s NFL draft, Detroit Lions’ fans typical refrain of “same ol’ Lions” hit a deep crescendo when the team took Appalachian State punter Sam Martin in the fifth round.
A punter. A freakin’ punter.
Believe it or not, this was a good draft pick, and part of a plan. A punter is never going to be beloved, fans will never wear his jersey and the media will never seek him out for an interview. Most fans would rather not punt, which is why going for it on 4th and 26 from your own seven yard line is so popular in Madden games. In the non-virtual world though, you gotta punt. So you better do it well. And that is something the Lions have not done in a long time.
To take it a step further, the entire special teams unit is an afterthought of most football fans. When the special teams come out, its usually time to hit the rest room or beer line. Fans often fail to recognize the importance of the unit unless something great (return for a touchdown) or awful (allow a return for a touchdown) happens.
While fans were hoping the Lions would plug holes at running back, secondary, offensive line, and defensive end (to just name a few) during this offseason, they paid little attention to the changes on special teams, aside from when longtime fan favorite Jason Hanson decided to finally hang up his iron leg.
Yet the Lions have quietly reassembled a special teams unit that was dreadful last season, particularly early, which led to the disastrous 1-4 start. Detroit became the first team since 1940 to allow a kick and punt return in two straight games (at Tennessee, vs. Minnesota). While these returns can easily be chalked up to poor tackling and lousy schemes, Ben Graham and his replacement Nick Harris were the worst punters in the league last season. Neither punter was able to consistently pin opponents inside the 20, or get high hang times to result in a fair catch. Even Hanson, who had a very solid final season at kicking field goals, no longer had the leg strength to consistently reach the end zone for touchbacks.
The offseason has seen the Lions cut ties with maligned special teams coordinator Danny Crossman, install John Bonamego in that role, and finally say adieu to Stefan Logan. They brought in internet sensation kicker Havard Rugland to compete with David Akers, and Martin will be challenged by Blake Clingan for the punter’s job.
One position that the Lions have failed to address is a biggie–returner. Three of the Lions’ draft picks could be molded for the job. Theo Riddick, Darius Slay, and Corey Fuller all have the speed to be a return man–and so do veterans Reggie Bush, Ryan Broyles, Mike Thomas and others. Detroit could also wait around to see who gets cut by other teams prior to the season.
The last time the Lions’ special teams unit celebrated in the end zone was October 2010, when Logan scored on a kick return. Even more humiliating, it has been nearly a decade since Eddie Drummond scored a pair of punt returns in one game on Nov. 14, 2004, the last Lion to do so.
We’re so due.