This week we are going to be counting down the top five camp battles for the 2017 Detroit Lions training camp, which officially begins on Saturday. Every day up until the start of camp, we will reveal an important camp battle and break down the candidates to win the job.
Today, we are going to start with the kick and punt return jobs. Last year, the Lions used Andre Roberts to fill both roles, but Roberts is now playing in Atlanta with the Falcons. Here’s a look at the competition as it currently stands.
Detroit Lions camp battle No. 5: Kick/Punt returner
The case for Keshawn Martin
Martin was a pretty early addition for the Lions during 2017 free agency, signing a one-year deal with Detroit on the first Saturday of the free agency period. Of all the kick return candidates on the Lions roster, Martin has the most professional experience. Back in 2013, he ranked eighth in the NFL in kick return average (26.3 yards) with the Texans. Strangely, though, he hasn’t been used as a returner much since that season.
Lions general manager Bob Quinn does have familiarity with Martin. In 2015, the Patriots traded for Martin, but he only ended up returning eight punts and 10 kickoffs in nine games with New England.
In total, though, Martin has enough experience for the Lions to have confidence in him to assume the role in 2017
The case for TJ Jones
The Lions’ sixth-round draft pick in 2014 is the only receiver on the roster (excluding Golden Tate) who has assumed returner duties for the Detroit Lions during the regular season. In his three-year career in Detroit, Jones has returned five kickoffs and seven punts.
Jones hasn’t had much success so far, but he very well may be the leading candidate to win this job headed into training camp. Jones was getting first-team reps with the Lions offense during minicamp earlier this offseason and was part of the stiff competition at punt returner.
With experience at the returning jobs and a pretty good knowledge of Detroit’s offense, Jones could easily justify a roster spot if he continues to improve.
The case of Jace Billingsley
Billingsley failed to make it on a gameday roster last year as a rookie, but he was promoted from the practice squad late in the year. Billingsley entered the 2017 offseason with a lot of hype and he’ll get his fair shot at the return job this training camp. He was already receiving reps as a punt returner during minicamp.
During the 2016 preseason, Billingsley was given some work as a returner. He didn’t show much as a punt returner (seven returns for 18 yards), but was very efficient as a kick returner (3 kickoffs for 90 yards).
If the hype is real, Billingsley could very well win the role in 2017.
The case for Jamal Agnew
Of all the candidates for the return job, Agnew has the best athletic tools. His blazing speed makes him a huge breakaway threat any time he has his hands on the ball. Just look at some of his highlights from the University of San Diego:
In 2016, Agnew returned 17 punts for 216 yards (12.7 average) and a touchdown. However, Agnew did not assume kick return duties for San Diego.
Of all four candidates, Agnew seems to have the most secure roster spot. As a fifth-round rookie, Detroit clearly sees something in Agnew’s future with the team. A good way to make sure he’s on the team would be to win out punt return duties.
RB Dwayne Washington - After returning a preseason kickoff for a touchdown last year, Washington did see a little action on special teams during the regular season. He returned two kickoffs for 46 yards. However, Washington wasn’t taking any punt return reps earlier this offseason, and he’s going to have stiff competition to make the team as a running back anyways.
WR Golden Tate - Tate has been an explosive punt returner in his past, but the Lions would be risking a lot putting him there in 2017. Detroit doesn’t have a lot of proven wide receiver depth behind Tate, so handing him a dangerous special teams role would be a bit careless.
Who has the advantage entering training camp?
I fully believe the Lions are entering training camp without a firm grasp on who will win this positional battle. Right now, it appears Jones is the leading candidate, simply because he both has the most recent experience and he’s most familiar with the Lions offense. But I think Agnew, Billingsley and Martin could all win their way into the job if they impress during training camp and the preseason.
Who will be the Lions’ kick/punt returner in 2017?
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A combination of two (explain in comments)