With Detroit Lions training camp upon us, we wrap up our roster battle series by breaking down the special teams units. Like it or not, the final handful of roster spots typically comes down to who can best contribute in the third phase of the game, so let’s take a closer look at which players could put themselves in favorable spots.
If you missed any of the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out:
- Who is QB2 and will QB3 be on the 53-man roster?
- Sorting the running back depth chart
- Establishing a WR hierarchy
- Examining the TE2/3 competition
- Who is OT4 and will they make the roster?
- Who are the favorites for IOL4/5?
- Is there a DT depth problem?
- How man EDGE will make the 53-man roster?
- Questions abound at cornerback
- Will there be any surprises at safety?
Setting the table for the kicking units
Entering last training camp, Jack Fox was coming off a rookie season that saw him receive Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors, and unsurprisingly did not face any competition for his job. That was not true of the other specialists' positions.
Two-time Pro Bowler Don Muhlbach was entering his 18th training camp with the Lions and like he had done so many times in the past was expected to dispatch his competition, this time being Scott Daly. But fortunes were not on the Muhl’s side in 2021 and he was surprisingly released during the team's first round of roster cuts. Muhlbach was hired by the Lions in a coaching capacity ahead of the season.
At kicker, Randy Bullock and Zane Gonzalez battled to an underwhelming draw in camp, with neither impressing enough to earn a roster spot. The Lions would release both players at cutdowns—a move correctly predicted by our own John “Nostradamus” Whiticar—and entered the season with an important need. Meanwhile, Bullock went on to the Titans, Gonzalez the Panthers, and both remain with those teams today.
Entering the season, the Lions had Fox and Daly with secured positions, then claimed Austin Seibert off of waivers from the Bengals to fill the void at kicker.
Fox continued his impressive punting performances and actually improved in several areas including his yards per punt average (49.2 ypp), longest punt (70 yards), kickoff off average (63.1 ypk), and kickoff touchback percentage (54.3 percent). Additionally, he successfully converted an onside kick, and threw the ball on three fake punts, completing two for first downs, with one falling between the hands of Godwin Igwebuike on his only failed conversion.
Daly had just two tackles on the season, but more importantly, he was consistently accurate on his snaps, earning a 66.4 grade from PFF on the season.
Seibert opened the season as the starter during the first two weeks, but he was placed on the COVID list and Ryan Santoso was elevated during Weeks 3 and 4. Seibert returned in Week 5 and kicked through Week 8 before injuring his hip and landing on injured reserve. Coming out of the bye, Santoso was signed to the active roster, but a missed extra point in regulation and a missed field goal in overtime against the Steelers led to him being released following the game.
Once again, the Lions were without a kicker and they quickly made two moves to fill the vacancy: signing rookie Riley Patterson off the Patriots practice squad and signing Aldrick Rosas to their own practice squad. Unsure of what they had in Patterson, the Lions elevated the veteran Rosas to their starting kicker job in Week 11, but he was quickly replaced by Patterson the following week. Patterson would close the season as the Lions' kicker.
Entering the 2022 offseason, the Lions brought back three of their kickers from 2021. Seibert remained under contract after being claimed, Patterson was ERFA tendered, and Rosas was given a futures deal. When the Lions claimed defensive lineman John Cominsky in May, Rosas was released as a corresponding move.
Roster construction/The Battleground
The Lions are currently only carrying Fox and Daly at their respective position, therefore their position seems safe. At kicker, though, the battle for the starting role should be decided in training camp.
Currently, the Lions have just two kickers remaining, fortunately, they were their two most accurate kickers from last season:
- Seibert went 10 of 12 on field goals (83.3 percent), was just 1 of 2 from beyond 50 yards (missed from 51 yards), and was 5 of 5 on extra points.
- Patterson went 13 of 14 on field goals (92.9 percent), was 0 for 1 from beyond 50 (missed from 55 yards), and was 16 of 16 on extra points.
Neither kicker was very good in the spring, but it’s unclear as to why. Knocking the rust off? Trying a new style? Whatever the reason, if either carries any inaccuracy into camp, this staff has shown they have little patience for mistakes in the kicking game.
NOTE: Typically, Jeremy and I have a discussion section here, but I wanted to make sure to address the important players that are not directly involved in the kicking process, so we will resume the interactive section at the end.
Setting the table for the non-kickers
At the non-kicking related special teams spots, the Lions used 66 different players to fill out their needs. Within those roles, 16 players had at least 100 special teams snaps, five ended with at least 200 snaps, and one player had over 300 snaps.
Here’s how the highest snap producers were broken down by position, with the names of the top-five players featured:
- Safety: 5 players, including C.J. Moore (298 special teams snaps)
- Linebacker: 4 players, including Anthony Pittman (374)
- RB/FB: 2 players, including Igwebuike (284) and Jason Cabinda (243)
- EDGE: 2 players
- CB: 1 player, Bobby Price (202)
- WR: 1
- TE: 1
It’s worth noting that Cabinda and Moore were the highest graded Lions’ special teamers from last season with grades of 85.0 and 82.6 respectively. Pittman and Moore registered the most special teams tackles with nine each, while Price and Igwebuike were next in line with eight each, and the four of them collectively accounted for over 40 percent of the Lions' special teams tackles in 2021. All five return in 2022.
At returner, the Lions bring back both their kick (Igwebuike) and punter returners (Kalif Raymond) from last season. Igwebuike received slightly better than average marks from PFF (63.2 on kickoffs, 72.0 special teams overall), but he did a verage24.9 yards per return attempt, good for fifth best in the NFL. Raymond averaged 11.2 punt return yards per attempt, good for fourth in the NFL, and he earned a 70.4 punt return grade from PFF.
There are no clear guidelines for how many special teamers to keep at each position, but we can ascertain, based on last season's numbers, that the Lions have a preference for linebackers and defensive backs.
Virtually every player on the 53-man roster will see some special teams, but the players on the bubble often use special teams as a path to the roster. Therefore, essentially every player we have discussed in this series “battleground” sections will need to prove their importance on special teams.
The biggest losses from the 2021 special teams roster are linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin (117 special teams snaps), wide receiver/gunner Khadarel Hodge (168), and safety Dean Marlowe (100).
To replace Reeves-Maybin’s role, the Lions signed linebacker Chris Board. Last season in Baltimore, Board registered 380 special teams snaps and earned an 83.5 grade on special teams from PFF. Board is considered one of the best special teams players in the NFL.
Hodge was one of the Lions' starting gunners and there will surely be fierce competition to find his replacement. One receiver who coach Dan Campbell singled out as a possible replacement was Trinity Benson:
“I think (Benson) can help us on special teams. I think he can be gunner, and so if we can feel that speed, and he continues to catch the ball, and do what he’s done in spring, and then he comes out and competes at a gunner on special teams, I think that serves him well, serves us well.”
Another new addition who has gunner experience is third-round pick, safety Kerby Joseph. Last season at Illinois, despite being a starter, Joseph registered 101 special teams snaps, including 25 at gunner, and earned an 84.5 special teams grade from PFF. Of course, Joseph could also be in line to fill in similarly to Marlowe.
Another newcomer to keep an eye on is seventh-round pick nickel cornerback Chase Lucas. As a five-year starter, Lucas’ special teams contributions declined over the past few seasons (which is typical in college) but he did record 100+ special teams snaps in each of his first three years, including earning an 81.4 special teams grade (107 snaps) from PFF in his redshirt junior year. With 4.48 40-yard dash speed and tackling ability, he could land at a variety of positions, including gunner.
While the Lions are bringing back both Igwebuike and Raymond, coaches will surely want to have a depth chart at each returner position, so both incumbents will have to stay vigilant, as opportunities will consistently be there for others.
In the spring, here’s who was taking reps at the return spots, keeping in mind this list of players is likely to expand in the fall:
- Kick return: Igwebuike, Raymond, D’Andre Swift (RB), Craig Reynolds (RB), Kalil Pimpleton (rookie WR), Greg Bell (rookie RB)
- Punt return: Raymond, Pimpleton, Josh Johnson (rookie WR)
Erik: As a reminder, in our 53-man post-OTA/minicamp projection, we kept Fox, Daly, and Seibert. We were split between Seibert and Patterson, but went with Seibert because he made more field goals in the spring—but neither of us are overly convinced one kicker has an advantage over the other.
So, Jeremy, I know special teams is one of your favorite subjects to discuss, so as you’ve unpacked this breakdown, was there anything that jumped out at you that you wanted to discuss further?
Jeremy: I’m mildly interested in the return battles (which is as excited as I get for special teams). Igwebuike and Raymond were fine last year, but Detroit could stand to upgrade from both. Raymond isn’t going anywhere because the staff loves him (both on offense and special teams), but I’m not entirely sold on Igwebuike. Problem is, I’m not sure Detroit has options that could seriously challenge for either job. Do you feel the incumbent returners have any real competition?
Erik: If we look at the players who have taken reps returning in the spring, it’s not loaded with players who have been previously successful.
Raymond looks to be in a good spot as a punt returner, but could be able to do both? He has been underwhelming at kick returning in the past and nowhere near Igwebuike’s numbers. I can’t imagine they want Swift back there, especially with his injury history. Reynolds hasn’t returned a punt or kick since 2017. Bell has never done any returning at any level. Pimpleton showed promise in college on punt returns, but only has two career kick returns (and he dropped one of them), and his overall path to the roster is very challenging. Johnson has one career kick return and has never fielded a punt.
The closest players on the roster to having any previous success was back in college when DJ Chark was a punt returner in 2017 and Jameson Williams last season—but I can’t imagine they want either of those guys in that role. Williams’ ludicrous speed and ability to house kickoffs could be an option when they need a game-breaking play, but not on a week-to-week basis.
If there is one player that I think can challenge for a return job, it’s Trinity Benson. He has 4.44 speed and returned both kicks and punts for four years in college, as well as a couple returns during the preseason with the Denver Broncos as well. If he is headed for a WR6 role, winning a return job could help solidify that.
Alright, let’s put a bow on this series. Training camp is upon us, enjoy!