Reasons for Optimism
Dec 27, 2014; San Diego, CA, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers player Ameer Abdullah (8) jumps over Southern California Trojans cornerback Josh Shaw (6) in the fourth quarter in the 2014 Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium. USC won 45-42. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The Lions have scoured the collegiate ranks as well as free agency seeking viable options to enter camp to compete for return duties. While there are several lesser known players Desmond Martin, Vernon Johnson and Jarred Haggins who could present some competition for Ross, 2nd round draft pick Ameer Abdullah has the look of a player who could take command of punt return duties.
If Jeremy Ross ends up as the team’s primary kick and/or punt returner in 2015 it will be because he earned it by overcoming stiff competition on the field. A scenario in which Ross wins return duties in 2015 may also mean FEWER snaps within the regular offense. Tim Twentyman’s of detroitlions.com recounts his discussion with Marciano where those allusions were made: “Marciano said he watched film of every return Jeremy Ross had the last two years and thought he was better in 2013. He said Ross playing more offense in 2014 could have been a factor in his decline on special teams last year, but the biggest factor, as he saw it, was the blocking in front of Ross.”
There’s some precedent to reducing a returner’s role on offense to bolster their efficiency in the return game. Devin Hester is widely held as the best return specialist in this era of football. When his numbers waned, at least some writers who cover the Bears believe it was directly proportionate with the amount of usage he received in the regular offense. Once Hester’s use in the regular offense was effectually eliminated, he produced the highest output in kickoff return yardage at any point during his tenure in Chicago. If usage/fatigue does impact effectiveness on returns for some players it could be important to lessen Ross’ offensive snaps from the 765 he received in 2014 to see if that augments his output this season.
Nov 9, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions punter Sam Martin (6) throws a pass during a trick play against the Miami Dolphins at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
In addition to drafting players with special teams experience to fortify blocking and coverage or coaxing the best out of the return game through competition the biggest reason for optimism on special teams is the kicking tandem of Matt Prater and Sam Martin. Martin has performed as a top ten punting talent and a top 5 kickoff specialist through the first two seasons of his career. Matt Prater has a distinguished resume that establishes him as one of the best long distance kickers in this era. With a full off-season to prep Prater should regain his 2013 pro bowl form. Combined, these two superb specialists can support both the offense and defense by scoring points and flipping field position. While the duo of Johnson and Tate may garner most of the headlines the value of Prater and Martin shouldn’t be underestimated.
Jon Bonamego was a competent coordinator who left the Lions in a better state than the one he inherited when he assumed the reigns from his predecessor, Danny Crossman. With a bit of attentiveness to detail from Marciano and an influx of youth and talent on ‘teams’ Lions fans have several reasons to believe this unit will indeed be special in 2015.