Making a position change in the NFL could mean one of two things. It could mean a team is unhappy with that player’s progress at their current position. Or it could mean the player has so much value that his role needs to be expanded from where it currently stands.
I’d imagine most position changes are a mixture of both things, but it’s hard to exactly tell how it applies to Detroit Lions cornerback turned wide receiver, Jamal Agnew.
Agnew hadn’t shown much as a potential nickel cornerback in his first three seasons in the NFL, but with his agility, speed, and elusiveness, it also makes sense to want those sort of skills on offense to bring a whole new dynamic to that side of the ball.
But will Agnew take to the position change? Is there even a spot for him on the roster in the receiver room? Let’s take a closer look at Agnew’s situation.
Expectations heading into 2019
Agnew had an extremely disappointing 2018 season. After getting an All-Pro nod in his rookie year, Agnew suffered a significant leg injury early in the 2018 season and didn’t return until the very end of the season. After just averaging 4.8 yards per punt return in his shortened season, many were hoping and expecting a big bounce-back year in 2019.
That being said, after the Lions signed Justin Coleman to a big contract, Agnew was expected to solely play on special teams, but given his explosive-play potential, there wasn’t much question he was going to make the roster.
Actual role in 2019
2019 stats: 19 punt returns, 175 yards (9.2 avg.), 1 TD; 17 kickoff returns, 454 yards (26.7 avg.), 1 TD; 1 rush, 9 yards; 1 catch, -2 yards; 9 tackles, 1 FF
PFF grade: 52.9 special teams grade
2019 played out pretty much as expected for Agnew. His explosiveness returned, and he was the only player in the NFL to return both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown. That said, outside of those two plays, Agnew didn’t really contribute all that much. He received 18 snaps on offense—which he turned into two touches and 7 yards—and 19 on defense.
Even when you consider his special teams contributions outside of his two touchdowns, the results aren’t all that dynamic.
16 kick returns, 354 yards (22.1 avg.)
18 punt returns, 111 yards (6.2 avg.)
Those aren’t bad numbers, especially with the one biggest play taken out, but they’re nothing special, either. Throw on top of that some early issues with ball security, and it was a pretty quiet season for Agnew.
Essentially, Agnew’s 2019 season was defined by just two plays, but they were huge plays.
Outlook for 2020
Contract status: Signed through 2020 (UFA)
In an effort to get more contributions out of Agnew, the Lions are shifting him to the offensive side of the ball this offseason.
“We really like his skill set,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said back in June. “The ball in his hands, he does great things with it. When you have those type of players, you want to get the ball in their hands. So this offseason he has spent time in the receiver room pretty much exclusively. And right now, we’re gonna kind of lean that way and let it go where it goes.”
But Agnew will have a hard time seeing the field consistently with Detroit’s current set of receivers. All of the Lions’ top four receivers from 2019 are returning—Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones Jr., Danny Amendola and Marvin Hall—and all four played quite well for Detroit last year. Throw in rookie fifth-round pick Quintez Cephus, and it’s hard to guarantee a roster spot for him at all.
Of course, Agnew’s special teams skills are so unique that Detroit may decide to make room for him on the roster simply for that. But even his returner job could be under great competition. The Lions drafted speedster Jason Huntley in the fifth round this year, and the running back took five kickoffs to the house during his career at New Mexico State. Last year’s sixth-round pick Ty Johnson is also a capable kick returner, though he averaged just 19.3 yards on three returns last year. Newly-added wide receiver Victor Bolden Jr. also has significant experience on returns.
But Detroit doesn’t currently have a punt returner than can come even close to Agnew’s production. Though Danny Amendola did take over for Agnew in certain situations last year, his role was to catch the ball on punts in which a fair catch was highly likely. Amendola’s return ability is limited, at best.
The question for Agnew’s future is two-fold: Can he make the successful transition to wide receiver to potentially take over the role of someone like Marvin Hall? Secondly, do the Lions value the punt return job enough to justify a roster spot. As the NFL continues to add rules that limit the efficiency of special teams plays, it becomes tougher to justify a roster spot for a return specialist alone. Last year, the Lions attempted just 23 kickoff returns (less than 1.5 per game) and 31 punt returns.
The best shot for Agnew to make the roster this year is to prove his value at both positions. His unique skills at punt return may give him a leg up, meaning the Lions may be willing to take a slight downgrade at wide receiver from Hall to Agnew if it means keeping their home-run threat at returner. However, Agnew will have to make it a competition, because while Hall may have only caught seven passes last year, he turned each into huge plays for the offense. Agnew needs to show he can be the same big-play threat on both special teams and on offense.