When the Detroit Lions added Jeremy Ross shortly after the start of the 2013 season, he quickly became their starting kick and punt returner, and he performed quite well. Last year, however, was a much different story. Ross' numbers dropped, and there seemed to consistently be mental mistakes. It wasn't quite as bad as Stefan Logan's 2012 season -- never forget -- but it was a pretty discouraging performance on Ross' part.
This year, with a new special teams coordinator, the Lions' return job is up for grabs. The Lions need to improve that aspect of their special teams unit, and that could mean replacing Ross on both the kick and punt return units. Training camp and the preseason will ultimately decide who controls the return duties, and based on how the reps were divided up this spring, there are several guys in the mix in this position battle.
Let's start with Ross. After joining the Lions in 2013, he averaged 29.3 yards per kick return and 16.2 yards per punt return, and he finished the year with one kick and one punt return touchdown (both in the snow-filled game in Philadelphia). Last year, Ross didn't find the end zone at all as a returner, and he averaged only 25.4 yards per kick return and only 8.9 yards per punt return. All of the blame certainly doesn't belong to him for this decrease, but he definitely could have been better.
The four main candidates who could take the job from Ross are Lance Moore, Golden Tate, Ryan Broyles and Ameer Abdullah. Of these players, Tate seemingly has the best track record on punts after taking eight returns at least 20 yards with the Seattle Seahawks back in 2013. By comparison, Ross only had seven total punt returns of 20 or more yards the last two seasons combined. The one issue with Tate is that the Lions are going to rely heavily on him on offense, so they may not want to risk potential injury on special teams. Perhaps Tate could be used situationally -- we got a glimpse of that in the playoffs against Dallas -- but they may be reluctant to hand him a full-time returner job, even if it's only on punts.
The other players have far less of a track record of success, at least in the NFL. Moore really only returned kicks in 2008, and the last time he had more than two punt returns in a season was 2010. Broyles, meanwhile, has returned only a single punt in the regular season, and Abdullah is a rookie. At Nebraska, Abdullah did put up some impressive numbers as a returner, but like with Tate, are the Lions going to want to risk potential injury on special teams with someone expected to heavily contribute on offense?
Who has the edge right now?
This is a tough call because there are so many options and because we are talking about two different return spots. Perhaps the Lions will go with a player like Tate or Abdullah on punts and let someone else handle kicks. Or perhaps they will be saved for certain situations instead of getting full-time work on special teams. Or perhaps the Lions will just go in a completely different direction in order to avoid the injury risk altogether.
In any case, I guess I'm going to give Abdullah the edge for now, at least for the start of the regular season. I just can't see the Lions sticking with Ross after last year, and I don't expect Tate to be the full-time returner. Abdullah was drafted to be an explosive playmaker, and getting him the ball on special teams seems like a good idea. Yes, there's an injury risk, but unless he enters the season as the starting running back, I think it's a risk worth taking.
Previously: Backup quarterback, starting running back, No. 4 running back, starting fullback, No. 3 wide receiver, No. 4 offensive tackle, starting left guard, starting center, No. 5 interior offensive lineman, No. 3 defensive end, second starting defensive tackle, starting strongside linebacker, No. 6 linebacker, No. 1 nickelback, No. 4 safety