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Detroit Lions 2021 free agent profile: Should the Lions re-sign Jamal Agnew?

While Agnew struggled as a receiver, his special teams value remains very high.

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions and their newly-structured front office will face a lot of easy decisions this offseason. There are a lot of players with bloated contracts that Detroit will likely dispose of in the name of creating some cap space and overturning a roster that just isn’t where it needs to be.

However, not every decision will be black and white. There are some players that undeniably have talent, but they may have minor roles or were used improperly by the previous coaching staff.

Jamal Agnew fits both of those descriptions. The Lions’ special teams ace for the past four years showed again in 2020 why he’s one of the most dangerous return men in the league, but he also struggled in a new role to the team.

So should the Lions bring him back or let him walk? Let’s take a closer look.

Previous free agent profiles: Danny Amendola, Matt Prater

Jamal Agnew

Expectations heading into 2020

Agnew was one of the more fascinating offseason stories. His return abilities were already known, but the Lions decided to pass on his defensive skills and make him a full-time receive. Given his skills in the open field, this seemed like a good fit and a weapon the Lions seldomly used on the offensive side of the ball.

And the early returns looked very, very promising. He looked like a natural to the receiver position during training camp, leading some to believe he could be the eventual replacement to veteran Danny Amendola at the slot receiver position.

Expectations were still relatively low in terms of offensive output—and his roster spot wasn’t even guaranteed considering all of Detroit’s return man options during camp—but by the time the regular season started, there was a fair amount of hype.

Actual role in 2020

2020 stats: 13 catches, 89 yards; 6 rushes, 33 yards — 12.7 yards per punt return (1 TD), 28.0 yards per kickoff return

PFF grade:

  • 69.3 return grade (12th of 52)
  • 56.7 offense grade (DNQ)

As a returner, Agnew was as good as ever. His 12.7 punt return average was personally second only to his All-Pro rookie season. And as a the team’s kick returner for the second straight year, he set a career-high with 28.0 yards per return. Both of those figures ranked in the top five in the NFL.

But Agnew’s role as an offensive threat never really came to fruition in 2020. He was still mostly used as a gadget player with some successes and some... well, not successes. He averaged just over nine offensive snaps per game, yet was only targeted 20 times all season.

Overall, Agnew’s performance on special teams was enough to be named Pro Football Writers of America’s All-NFC punt returner.

Outlook for 2021

Contract status: Unrestricted free agent

Agnew provides an interesting case. Given all of the rules and regulations surrounding special teams, is it worth it to carry a player who is simply a return specialist, even one as skilled as Agnew? It’s a tough case to make given how small gameday rosters are, but it’s one the new front office will have to consider.

But maybe that’s not a fair assessment of who Jamal Agnew is. While a return back to cornerback seems unlikely—even with Detroit’s new coaching staff that include former All Pro cornerback Aaron Glenn and Aubrey Pleasant—it’s certainly possible that Agnew’s abilities were not showcased properly by the previous coaching staff.

One quote from Dan Campbell’s press conference really sticks out when it comes to Agnew.

“We’re going to find a way to get our best players, there again, on your worse players. Like, how do we find those matchups? And OK, let’s use your concepts, but now, let’s for example, let’s put (D’Andre) Swift in the slot. Let’s take him out of the backfield and work him one-on-one with WILL linebacker.”

The Lions very rarely were able to get Agnew into mismatches. Maybe that speaks to Agnew’s inability as a receiver, but maybe that speaks to Detroit’s lack of creativity on offense. The latter was definitely the case of running back D’Andre Swift, who was criminally underused in the passing game, but the same could be argued of Agnew.

One thing that seems likely, though, is Agnew’s interest in coming back. While you can never read too much into vague Tweets, this seems like an optimistic post after some of the Lions’ recent coaching hires:

Even the use of the word “we” suggests he still considers himself a Lion.

And while he’s clearly bummed about the eventual loss of Matthew Stafford, he did retweet this from Golden Tate, which seems to suggest he has a lot of respect for this organization:

Agnew has also been one of the more active players in the local Detroit community. So if the Lions want to bring him back, it’s probably fair to believe there may be some mutual interest there.

What do you all think? Worth re-signing?


Should the Lions re-sign Jamal Agnew?

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