A kick returner on an NFL team is like the Bass player in a band. Nobody chooses the Bass as their instrument. Bass players are usually former guitarists who realized they had peaked, and still had a friend or two that was better than them. To stay in the band, they grabbed another instrument with similar techniques and hopped in the van. A kick returner is usually a bad wide receiver, running back, or corner back. They realize that the team has one or two players that are going to beat them out for the slot receiver, third down back, or dime corner role. So they take a crack at one of the more oddball positions in the game. If you take the bass out of a song, it’s usually unlistenable garbage. A bad kick returner is also often the difference between a field goal and a punt.
There have been some great bass players in Motown. Mel Gray leads the team in return yards with 5478 kick return and 1427 punt return yards. He also scored seven touchdowns for the Lions between 1989-1994. Franchise greats like Lem Barney and Yale Larry took their turn slapping the bass as well. In the Millen years, the bass player was the only reason to show up for a lot of concerts. It started with Michigan great Desmond Howard. His four-season 12.1-yard punt return average would have been among the top five in 2016. After Howard was gone, Eddie Drummond had six return touchdowns for the Lions between 2002-2006. Like everything else about the Lions, that’s when things took a down turn.
It was 2010 before the backbeat returned. Stefan Logan, Jeremy Ross, Ameer Abdullah, and finally Andre Roberts each put in a good year or two for the Lions rhythm section. This year the team is holding open auditions in training camp. There is no way that the Lions will deploy Golden Tate or Ameer Abdullah as the punt and kickoff returners respectively. They would be the best choices by far, but the offense runs through those two players. Putting them in danger for a two or three-yard field position advantage on each drive would be monumentally short sighted. Here are the players hoping to secure jobs by giving the Lions a reason not to do that.
T. J. Jones
Jones is not a good returner at the NFL level. He lost the job in 2016 to Andre Roberts, and it was not even close. He also fell behind a couple of the other returning players on this list. by the end of the preseason. Jones as the Lions kick returner would be a signal that the Lions made a mistake in letting Andre Roberts go.
Billingsley is not as good as Lions fans think he is, but he was getting reps ahead of Jones last preseason both as a wide receiver and kick returner. He is also the team’s best back up for the Golden Tate role. He is a traditional small receiver though and a pale imitation of Tate. Billingsley has the potential to fit this role and was a threatening enough receiver that teams would at least have to cover him with something that wasn’t their worst defensive back.
He set Lions fans hearts on fire in the 2016 preseason with a few big plays. Even during the regular season, he showed that his athleticism was on the level needed to do it on Sundays. What he also showed in his rookie year was that on the other plays, the ones where he wasn’t blazing down the sideline and leaving the coverage team in the dust, he was just going to run into a tackler and go down. He needs to raise his game to a more consistent level to have any hope of landing the role.
In his rookie season, Martin was electric. His 12.1-yard punt return average was great, and his kick returning was not bad. Unfortunately, that was his peak. In the years since he lost the punt return job in Houston, then failed to claim it in New England or San Francisco. I do like his chances of making the team but don’t like the Idea of him being the guy. bringing him to Detroit tells me that Bob Quinn was likely part of the decision-making process that brought Martin to New England. Martin also posted career highs in receptions and receiving yardage in his single season with the Patriots. I think Quinn sees something here that he believes the rest of the league has missed.
Agnew runs a legitimate sub 4.4 40 yard dash and showed the ability to read blocks well at San Diego. The Pioneer conference is a long way from the NFL though. Agnew is still likely to be one of, if not the fastest, players on the field. Even so, the adjustment will be a steep one. Agnew is a twitchy athlete that will likely impress in the preseason against low-level competition on defense. The Lions will have to keep him on the 53 man roster to keep him at all and giving him return duties will make that sting less. If the sixth corner spot comes down to Quandre Diggs and Jamaal Agnew, I think Agnew gets the nod because he is a Bob Quinn pick.
One of those men will be the Lions kick returner in 2017. If I was forced to pick one before training camp I would put my money on Agnew. His athleticism and the desire to keep him on the roster as the Lions developmental inside corner make him a likely choice. The team has enough veterans at his position to allow him to focus elsewhere. There are not a lot of reasons outside the kick returner spot to hold on to any of the other contenders. Nothing is pre-determined and Agnew will have to win the job, but that is my call for the position.