Detroit Lions: Can special teams remain a strength in 2020?

Jamal Agnew, Detroit Lions (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Jamal Agnew, Detroit Lions (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images) /

The Detroit Lions’ perennially strong special teams unit will look a little different in 2020. Can it still give them an advantage this fall?

Despite their overall struggles, few NFL teams have been as stable as the Detroit Lions on special teams during the past several seasons. With changes to that group upcoming this fall, the question is whether they can maintain and even build on that stability.

Aside from the first eight games of 2017 when punter Sam Martin was injured, the trio of him, placekicker Matt Prater, and long snapper Don Muhlbach were fixtures in Detroit for most of the last six years. Martin though was not retained in free agency and signed with the Denver Broncos in March.

Jack Fox may have the edge in becoming Martin’s replacement; former Aussie-rules player Arryn Siposs was diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier this week as the team returned to Allen Park for initial virus testing. While Siposs is thankfully said to be “feeling really good” according to the Detroit Free Press, it could put his status for the rest of training camp in question.

Prater’s 83.9% field goal conversion rate was his lowest for a full season with Detroit, but the Lions continue to have full confidence in him, especially from long range. His 53 makes from 50 or more yards is the second-most in NFL history.

Prater has also hit countless clutch kicks during his six years in Detroit while many other NFL teams have shuffled through ineffective kickers. He is also in a contract year, which could serve as extra motivation.

Muhlbach has been a pillar of durability and reliability and will return for year 17 in Michigan. He is currently second on the Lions’ career games played list with 244, behind only kicker Jason Hanson. That also puts him seventh among active players and 56th all-time.

The Lions, as they have done before, will have competition for Muhlbach in training camp, this year in the form of undrafted rookie free agent Steven Wirtel from Iowa State. Muhlbach has fought off every potential replacement since his career in Detroit began, and that seems likely again barring an injury, infection, or an unimaginable decline in performance.

Additionally, returner Jamal Agnew is undergoing a position switch this offseason. After making few strides on defense as a cornerback since entering the league in 2017, Agnew will now take the field as a receiver.

While that will not necessarily affect his standing in the return game, adapting to a new position without a normal offseason program and in a highly altered training camp could make it harder for him to stick on the roster.

He will face competition primarily from speedy rookie running back Jason Huntley. If Huntley makes noise in the return game and in the backfield rotation this summer, Agnew’s chances of sticking around could depend on him beating out several other receivers. Even if he can’t, would the Lions really feel comfortable parting ways with someone who has four return scores over the past three years?

A new coach will also be leading the group. Highly regarded Brayden Coombs will take the reigns after a successful stint with the Cincinnati Bengals. Coombs wore a number of assistant hats with the Bengals between 2009 and 2018 before being promoted to special teams coordinator in 2019, the title he will now hold with the Lions.

Coombs’ impact as the head of that unit was evident. According to Pro Football Outsiders, the Bengals’ special teams ranked first overall in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) in 2019, a metric that takes into consideration the quality of the opponent. That was up from seventh the year before. The Lions finished tenth in 2019.

The Lions are well aware that many games in the NFL are decided by special teams. Clutch kicks, field-flipping returns, well-placed punts, and shrewd game-planning can often mean the difference between a win and a loss. Look no further than the Lions’ two last-second losses to the Green Bay Packers in 2019 on buzzer-beating kicks by Mason Crosby.

Their 13-10 win over the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 2 last year was also aided by two missed L.A. field goals. The line between success and failure is that thin and the Lions have frequently benefited from the third phase in their few victories in recent years.

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So while the Lions have high hopes for many of their new additions on defense and offense, maintaining an effective special teams unit will be an important factor for them in 2020. It’s been one of their few positive traits lately, and they can’t afford any regression if they want to be competitive this fall.