Earlier this week, I discussed the understated kick return battle that would be happening in next month’s training camp. I ultimately concluded that, like the punt return position, third-year Detroit Lions defensive back Jamal Agnew should be considered the front runner for the job.
But I dropped a little bit of doubt in there, too. Unlike last year, the Lions suddenly have a lot of options at the nickel corner position, and although Agnew got first-team reps during minicamp while starter Justin Coleman sat out of team drills, that doesn’t mean all that much at this point in the offseason.
Is it possible that the punt returner that earned All-Pro honors in 2017 may not have a guaranteed spot on the roster? Let’s take a closer look at Jamal Agnew.
Expectations before 2018
Coming off the aforementioned All-Pro season, Agnew was coming into 2018 with a ton of expectations. Not only were Lions fans hopeful for another huge special teams impact, but his rookie year also showed glimpses of his value offensively, and Agnew was right there in the mix to be the Lions’ starting nickel corner, as well.
For a fifth-round pick, expectations were pretty darn high in his second year.
Actual role in 2018
2018 stats: 6 games (0 starts): 7 tackles, 1 pass defended; 8 kick returns, 27.0 yards per return; 12 punt returns, 4.8 yards per return
PFF grade: 49.7 (did not qualify for PFF rankings)
Before Agnew’s sophomore season could kick off, he saw it get derailed by a serious knee injury against the Green Bay Packers in Week 5. Per PFF, Agnew got 86 defensive snaps at the team’s nickel position, but his 45.6 coverage grade was not exactly promising.
Agnew flashed a little as a kick returner in his brief stint, but didn’t manage to break a big one in the punt return game.
Luckily, Agnew’s injury wasn’t as bad as initially feared, and the 24-year-old corner was able to return before the season was up. Ultimately, however, it was an unfortunate step back from his rookie year.
Outlook for 2019
Contract status: Signed through the 2020 season
Let’s return to the question about Agnew’s roster security. There’s little doubt he’s the team’s best punt returner, and he’s in the conversation for best kick returner, as well. The question is simply how much do the Lions value that? Head coach Matt Patricia does like his players to contribute on special teams, but they also need to be versatile and offer value elsewhere.
Agnew can be a threat or a distraction on offensive gadget plays, but his value defensively is still very much in question. And considering the Lions not only have Coleman taking over the nickel spot, but have a slew of safeties who have the skill-set, the speed and the experience to drop down and play nickel, it’s not so clear if Agnew stands out there. Quandre Diggs, Tracy Walker, Andrew Adams and even Will Harris could all come down and play some nickel corner if Detroit needs be.
At this point, it’s a numbers game in the secondary. Consider all of these players:
- Darius Slay
- Rashaan Melvin
- Justin Coleman
- Quandre Diggs
- Tracy Walker
- Will Harris
- Amani Oruwariye
- Tavon Wilson
- Andrew Adams
- Teez Tabor
- Charles Washington
That’s already 11 defensive backs listed, and you have to think at least those first seven are locks to make the roster. But what about Tavon Wilson’s experience? What about the special teams value Charles Washington brings as a gunner? Is Teez Tabor’s improvement for real? These are not going to be easy cuts for Detroit.
And if Detroit moves on from Agnew, it’s not like they’ll be completely devoid of talent in the return game. Rookie running back Ty Johnson could take over both those duties if he manages to win a roster spot in a crowded backfield. If not him, Danny Amendola, Tommylee Lewis, and even Quandre Diggs are more than capable.
Overall, I still think Agnew makes the team. He’s still on a very affordable rookie deal. There are no clear signs that his knee injury has caused any long-term issues with his speed. And, for now, he still looks like the best backup at the nickel cornerback spot. However, I’d keep a close eye on how the Lions treat him during training camp. There are no guarantees in this suddenly deep secondary.