Return Man: the Hidden Detroit Lions Roster Battle
By Jeff Risdon
Most fans know the main Detroit Lions roster battles shaping up for training camp and preseason.
- Travis Swanson vs. Graham Glasgow at center
- Rafael Bush vs. Miles Killebrew at strong safety
- Taylor Decker vs. Riley Reiff at left tackle
- The donnybrook at running back
Yet there’s another positional battle shaping up, one which has been a recurring issue for several years: return specialist.
Other than sporadic greatness in a couple of seasons from Jeremy Ross and the occasional sizzler from Ameer Abdullah in his 2015 rookie campaign, the Lions return game has not been much of an asset. Now with Abdullah expected to take a more prominent role as the starting running back, the return role appears wide open once again.
That’s not to say the second-year runner from Nebraska won’t get the return gig. He did lead the league in both kick return yards (1077) and attempts (37), thanks in part to his freaky 104-yard return that did not result in a touchdown. That spectacular play to kick off the second half in Green Bay tied the NFL record for the longest non-scoring play in league history.
But if Abdullah is deemed too valuable to the offense to man the kick return role full-time once again, there could be a change. And that says nothing of the black hole at punt returner.
Golden Tate ranked near the bottom of qualifiers last season at 7.5 yards per return. If Abdullah is too valuable to the offense to return kicks, surely Tate is even more so for punts. It would be a real surprise if Tate winds up returning punts once again.
The most obvious candidate is T.J. Jones, who manned the No. 2 role at both punt and kick returns last year. If that’s the case, No. 13 will have to perform better at it. He got almost half his 59 punt return yards on one of his 7 efforts, and his five kick return efforts underwhelmed at just a 21.2 average. He wasn’t a dynamic return guy at Notre Dame, either.
Jeremy Kerley had some success as a punt return man in his first couple of seasons with the New York Jets. While his average declined to “just” 8.6 last season, Kerley did lead the NFL in punt return attempts with 48 and finished second in return yards. He actually ranks 25th all-time in punt return average at 9.3, and if he can show that sort of proclivity in preseason it’s a good bet the sixth-year pro from TCU wins the PR job.
Of course the return job(s) could be a roster ticket for an unexpected interloper. The Lions do have a couple of candidates in receivers Austin Willis and Jace Billingsley. Both are shifty, quicker-than-fast 5’9” slot receivers on a team already loaded at that offensive spot. Willis is on a futures contract after not making the Raiders last season as an undrafted free agent from Emporia State. Billingsley is a 2016 undrafted free agent from Eastern Oregon State, and he posted a decent kick return average as a senior. Neither player has any chance of making the final 53 in any other fashion.
Then there is the possibility that the eventual return man isn’t even on the roster right now.