The Detroit Lions have been testing the waters this preseason, to see if someone on the roster can “catch their eye” as a kick/punt returner. But at the same time, they also feel comfortable with the incumbents Kalif Raymond and Godwin Igwebuike.
Last season, Raymond averaged 11.2 punt return yards per attempt, good for fourth best in the NFL, and he earned a 70.4 punt return grade from PFF. Igwebuike averaged 24.9 yards per return attempt, good for fifth best in the NFL, and a 63.2 kick return grade, with a 72.0 overall special teams grade from PFF.
And while Raymond and Igwebuike and been taking first-teams reps at their respective roles during practices, we have yet to see either field a ball on special teams during either of the preseason games.
But there’s a purpose behind that decision, as coach Dan Campbell discussed on Thursday:
“Yeah, I mean I think we’ve got a real good feel of what we have in Leaf (Raymond) and Godwin to an extent. And so, I think it’s more about, ‘OK, we know what those players are and what they can do.’ And so, now let’s see if somebody catches our eye or we believe can really surpass that. Which is honestly—that’s hard to find in one or two preseason games. But you just want to see if there’s something there.”
As Campbell alluded to, reps are hard to come by in the preseason, something special teams coordinator Dave Fipp supported and expanded on during his own Thursday press conference:
“At the end of the day, you only get a handful of reps... Well, who do you put in? How do you do the rotation? Do you do, ‘he gets one, then the next guy gets one,’ well that’s the only way to balance the reps out. But two of those come in the third or fourth quarter, when there’s more down-the-line guys playing than the top of the roster, you know what I mean? And so it’s like, there’s really no right way to do it, I don’t think.
While distributing reps and opportunities in games is challenging, with “no right way to do it,” it has seemed a bit odd at times that the Lions have completely kept their returning returners on the sidelines.
Fipp said that decision is simply about getting a look at players who are new to the NFL, reps against a higher-level talent:
“The one thing I would say is I value all that regular-season work quite a bit. I mean, if you see a guy do it in the National Football League against real players in the National Football League in regular-season games, then you got a pretty good idea what he’s gonna do... But a college guy, that’s hit and miss just a lot more, just definitely harder (to evaluate). So I would say the same way. If you got regular-season film on a guy, we have a pretty good idea who he is.”
Over two games in the preseason, the Lions have had the opportunity to return 13 kickoffs and four punts, and every player—Maurice Alexander, Trinity Benson, and Kalil Pimpleton—that has fielded one of those 17 kicks is either new to the NFL or has not done it in an NFL regular season game.
On punt returns, Alexander has returned all four and earned 33 yards, for an average of 8.3-yards per attempt—as a reminder, Raymond averaged 11.2-yards per attempt last season.
On kick returns, Benson was the first player up to get a crack at it and he turned his three opportunities into 75-yards, averaging 25.0 yards. Pimpleton fielded just one kick for 30 yards, while Alexander has been the most explosive, returning nine kicks for 174 yards and an average of 34.8 yards per attempt—as a reminder, Igwebuike averaged 24.9 yards per return over 28 attempts last season.
While Alexander has come up short of Raymond’s stats as a punt returner, he has exceeded Igwebuike’s average on kick returns. Here’s Fipp on the competition at kick returner:
“I think, at the end of the day, what you’re looking for in the preseason is guys who make explosive plays. Obviously, Alexander did that a week ago, so that was intriguing, so definitely something to look at. I think the good news for us, is there’s a lot of positions on this roster (that) are really competitive. I think the kick return stuff is definitely one of those, so we’ll see what happens in the preseason, and then, ultimately, (general manager) Brad (Holmes) and Dan (Campbell) and those guys have to make some tough calls.”
While the competition is heating up, Campbell noted that, for now, he was still leaning on the player with proven regular-season experience:
“Yeah, I would say right now Godwin (Igwebuike) would be the kick returner.”
That “right now” does leave the door open for Alexander to make an impression in preseason Game 3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday. And if he can expand his special teams contributions beyond just returning kicks—as Igwebuike does—Alexander will get a chance to make the final 53-man roster decision a tough one.