The position of kick returner has lost its luster in recent years thanks to kickoff rule changes, but it is still ripe for impact plays. The question is, do the Detroit Lions have any impact players?
In 2021, the Lions’ kickoff returns were primarily handled by running back Godwin Igwebuike. In his first ever season returning kicks, Igwebuike mustered an average of 24.9 yards per return, good for fifth-best in the NFL. It is worth noting that his longest return was just 47 yards, so his stats weren’t padded by an excessively long return or two.
That being said, the long of 47 yards also highlights the lack of highlight reel plays from Igwebuike. While he was dependable to get yards for the Lions, he didn’t quite showcase the ability to obliterate the opposing kick coverage. Thirteen players in the NFL had a longer kick return than Igwebuike’s 47-yarder. Such a play can drastically change the outcome of a game—even one massive return in a game can set the offense up for easy points. Is Igwebuike the type of dangerous returner to threaten such a return with every touch?
That being said, there is a downside to being a dangerous returner: opposing teams can simply boot it out of the end zone. Out of the 56 players to kick off in 2021, 31 of them had a touchback percentage of over 50 percent. This percentage can be misleading too, as some teams opted for shorter kickoffs to limit returns. An explosive kick returner is not the same as an explosive punt returner—as the New York Giants famously found out, it’s tough to keep it away from a dangerous punt returner.
With the question of how valuable a kick returner even is, let’s examine the other possible candidates.
One of the stars of the second preseason game was Maurice Alexander, who put together an impressive showing to the tune of 152 yards on four attempts. That type of performance could quickly threaten Igwebuike’s spot as the top kick returner.
Tom Kennedy is another player with a fantastic preseason thus far, but he has yet to show up as a kick returner (his onside kick recovery notwithstanding). Kennedy and Corey Ballentine were the remaining two Lions to return a kick in 2021, each notching just four returns. Compared to Igwebuike’s 28 returns, Kennedy is lacking in the experience department.
The starting kick returner of the first preseason game was Trinity Benson, who recorded three returns for an average of 25 yards, a modest stat line. Between his work as a kick returner, receiver, and gunner, the Lions are giving Benson plenty of looks. Is this because they like him, or are they trying to justify a roster spot for him?
There are a few other candidates with experience returning kicks, albeit not with Detroit. 2021 marked the first season that Kalif Raymond was not returning kickoffs. Raymond was instead the primary punt returner for the Lions. Although it seems unlikely, there is a non-zero chance the Lions opt to double-up his return duties. With so many position battles raging, it might be worth saving a roster spot.
D’Andre Swift had a total of two kickoff returns in college, but he has interestingly gotten some work as a kick returner in training camp. Given his role on offense (as well as his injury history), it might be best to avoid such a position for Swift.
With a few possible options, the Lions might have a difficult choice to make at kick returner.
Today’s Question of the Day is:
Who will be the Lions’ starting kick returner?
My answer: I think Godwin Igwebuike will be the starting kick returner.
After Alexander’s showing versus the Indianapolis Colts, I really wanted to give him the nod over Igwebuike, but I just couldn’t do so. Firstly, Igwebuike’s role on the team is deeper than just returning kicks.
As a runner, Igwebuike looked good in limited touches in 2021, and Saturday’s game against the Colts was a solid outing—he is serviceable as a running back, which is fitting for a RB4. Igwebuike also contributes on kickoff and punt coverage, something Alexander has not done. Alexander, meanwhile, faces stiff competition to make the roster as a wide receiver. He will have to knock off the likes of Kennedy, Benson, or Quintez Cephus to make the team, as it seems unlikely the Lions will roll with seven receivers.
I think the biggest threat to Igwebuike is not Alexander, but Justin Jackson. Jackson had a fantastic performance in the second preseason game, and he could threaten Igwebuike’s spot as a running back. Jackson returned kicks in 2019 for the Los Angeles Chargers, so it isn’t foreign to him if the Lions decide to shoehorn him into that role—that being said, he has not been an active returner in camp. Jackson is also seeing an uptick in kickoff and punt coverage snaps, further adding to his value.
The question may come down to whether the Lions value kick return upside (Igwebuike) or rushing upside (Jackson). Right now, I give Igwebuike the edge. I am somewhat concerned that Igwebuike is repping so late into games, but I think he has historically played well enough on offense and special teams to justify a roster spot.
If the Lions were to part ways with Igwebuike, they would either have to keep Alexander over a better receiver, or force a player with limited practice to fill the role. I’m not as confident in those decisions yet. I don’t think there’s a right answer per se, but Igwebuike seems like the safest option so far.