Who will anchor the return game for the Detroit Lions this season?
By Kellen Voss
After earning an All-Pro nod as the Detroit Lions’ kick returner his rookie year, Jamal Agnew struggled last season. Is his job up for grabs this summer?
Any football coach will tell that their actually three facets of the game that a team needs to excel in to be successful; not only does a team need to be efficient on offense and defense, but they also need to get a decent showing in the special teams department.
Two seasons ago, the Detroit Lions thought they were set for a while with a return man, as rookie Jamal Agnew put up good enough stats (league best 447 yards, 15.4 yards per return, and two touchdowns) to earn an All-Pro nod in the punt return game.
With a combination of injuries and NFL punt teams figuring out how to attack him, Agnew struggled in his second season returning punts. Even though he was only healthy enough to appear in six games this season, Agnew averaged less than five yards on the few punts he was able to return.
While his numbers in the punt return game did drastically go down, he did slightly improve on kickoff returns, as he increased his punt return yards (196 to 216) despite returning three less kickoffs in 2018 than he did in 2017.
That measly improvement is certainly not enough to guarantee Agnew the starting return job this upcoming season, as new special teams coordinator John Bonamego told Detroitlions.com’s Tim Twentyman that he loves the options the team now has in the return game.
"“The thing that we’re fortunate on our roster right now is we have a number of players that can catch punts. I think that’s probably a very underrated skill. It’s something you can never have too many players on your team that have the ability to do that.”"
Wide Receivers Danny Amendola and Tommylee Lewis split time returning punts with Agnew this season. Both have proved to be solid on punts, as each of the pass catchers average more than nine yards per return on punt returns, and Lewis also has experience catching and returning kickoffs.
These three are far from the only ones in the mix to return punts and kicks, as receivers Brandon Powell and Tom Kennedy appear to be in the mix for punt returner, and rookie running back Ty Johnson returned this summer alongside Agnew.
Bonamego has a different coaching philosophy in the return game than former special teams coach Joe Marciano, as he has stressed the importance of ball security on these returns.
This emphasis on avoiding fumbles bodes well for Agnew, as he has yet to fumble a kick or punt in his 41 attempts across the last two seasons. He is probably the projected starting returning if he can continue to have sticky fingers.
Despite Agnew being the current favorite to return kicks, having a large selection of options at that position will help boost the competition at the position, making whoever ends up returning kicks for the Lions ultimately better in the long run for the franchise.