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Detroit Lions training camp battle preview: Special teams turnover

Examining the battles in the third phase of the game.

NFL: Washington Football Team at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

We are on the eve of Detroit Lions 2021 training camp, so it’s time to put a bow on our camp preview series at Pride of Detroit by examining the special teams unit.

Get caught up on all the previous articles here:

Setting the table on special teams

The Lions will have a new coach, kicker, and returner this season, but they return Pro Bowl punter Jack Fox and everpresent long snapper Don Muhlbach, who will enter camp having to fend off another youngster trying to take his job.

New special teams coach Dave Fipp has been coaching in the NFL since 2008 and has been a full-time special teams coach since 2013 when he was hired by the Philadelphia Eagles. With coaching turnover in Philadelphia, the Eagles granted the Lions request to interview Fipp and he joined Dan Campbell’s staff this offseason.

During his time with the Eagles, Fipp produced some stand-out units. In 2014, he landed No. 1 on Sports Illustrated Rick Gosselin’s special teams rankings, then followed it up with a No. 2 ranking in 2015, and again a No. 1 ranking in 2016. In 2017, Fipp landed a No. 1 ranking on PFF’s special teams rankings. But since the Eagles Super Bowl, Fipp’s special teams unit has mirrored the rest of the Eagles production and only seen middle-of-the-road levels of success.

It’s not entirely clear what’s Fipp’s benchmarks are for choosing special teamers, but with special teams being a focus every practice during training camp, we may be able to ascertain what he looks for by the end of August.

Punter is locked in

Pro Bowler Jack Fox is the only punter on the roster. He won’t face competition and is the clear starter. Fin.

Kicker battle: Randy Bullock vs. Matthew Wright

Bullock is a 10-year veteran kicker who spent the last four seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. During that stretch, he completed 85 percent of his field goals and has an 83.2 percent career success rate. Overall Bullock is a reliable kicker, but he comes to Detroit with a reputation of struggling from 50 yards out (only making 50 percent of his 14 attempts over the last four years) and a few too many misses in clutch moments.

Wright has been in the NFL for two seasons but has only participated in three games, all last year with the Pittsburgh Steelers. In those games, he successfully made all four field goals and seven extra-point attempts, but never attempted a kick beyond 46 yards. In fact, dating back to his college days at UCF, his career-long is just 50 yards. Wright signed a futures deal with the Lions last January and will hold the honor of being the first player signed during the Dan Campbell era.

Erik’s projection: Bullock enters camp as the favorite but we saw firsthand last year how a player on a futures contract can win a job and turn it into a Pro Bowl season. Can Wright be the next Fox? He’ll have to start by winning a job in camp first.

Long snapper battle: Muhl vs. Scott Daly

Muhlbach is entering his 18th year in the NFL, all with the Lions. He has been a model of consistency, and despite signing only single-year contracts, he has routinely dispatched his competition, even when they were drafted (hello, Jimmy Landes).

Daly has been working to earn a job in the NFL since 2017, but his main success came with the XFL’s New York Guardians in 2020. The 27-year-old, former Notre Dame product will face the daunting task of taking on the Muhl.

Erik’s projection: #Longsnapperwatch is back on for the moment, but we’ve seen this movie before.

Returner battle: 5 guys in the mix

Combining the kick and punt returner roles isn’t always an exclusive exercise but the same players typically compete for both roles and if they can only do one of the roles, they better be able to contribute on offense or defense because there isn’t enough space on the 53-man roster for a player who can only do one thing.

In spring camp, the Lions had five players trying out for both roles: all four slot receivers (Kalif Raymond, Victor Bolden, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tom Kennedy) and UDFA rookie safety D’Angelo Amos.

Raymond was first through the rotation in the spring, which shouldn’t be surprising as he is the most experienced returner on the roster. Over the last two seasons in Tennessee, Raymond averaged 9.4 yards per punt return (8.3 career average) and 20.5 yards per kick return (20.5 career averages well). He also forced the most missed tackles per Punt/Kick return in 2020 (minimum 30 returns), per former-Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum.

Bolden hasn’t returned punts since 2017 when he was with the 49ers and he averaged just 5.8 yards per return. He did return kicks in 2017 and 2018, and has a career average of 21.3 yards per attempt. He has spent the 2019 and 2020 seasons on the Lions' practice squad.

St. Brown has limited experience as a returnman, only attempting 19 punt returns (5.6 yards per attempt) and two kick returns (21.5 yards per attempt) at USC. With an expected significant role on offense, he may only be used in emergency situations, if at all.

Kennedy has been in the mix for a return role each of the last two offseasons but hasn’t been able to secure a role while doing so.

Amos returned five punts for touchdowns while at James Madison, and with this likely being his best path to the roster, he will be highly motivated to make an early impact and impress coaches.

Erik’s projection: I am once again leaning towards the veteran and expecting Raymond to be the leader in the clubhouse when camp opens. Bolden and Amos figure to be his biggest competition and may have to make their mark during one of the preseason games.

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