Special teams get player who can tough it out

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Lions cornerback Johnson Bademosi works with the passing machine at the end of practice.

Allen Park  — Special teams players in the NFL are a volatile mixture of skills and psychological parts. And those traits tend to be unique to a no-frills position.

Unless, of course, Darius Slay is offering his concise summary of what the job requires.

“You got to be a dog,” the Lions cornerback said crisply as he left the Lions practice field Tuesday after a 90-minute minicamp session.

Slay had been asked, specifically, about camp newcomer Johnson Bademosi, a tackling marauder who played for the Browns before general manager Bob Quinn, in a sign of how personnel targets have changed at Allen Park, signed Badenosi to a two-year, $4.5 million deal that has a chance to hit $6 million.

Slay wasn’t immediately familiar with Bademosi at a time when teammates might as well be wearing name tags as the typical influx of fresh faces checks in.

But a coach knew all about him. And not surprisingly, Jim Caldwell was acquainted with Bademosi well before Quinn and the front office got involved in signing a free agent who can also play cornerback.

“He was a factor every single time we played against him,” Caldwell said Tuesday. “We always said: ‘You better block this guy, because if you don’t block him, he’s gonna make the tackle.’ ”

A team that last year finished 17th in opponent punt-return yardage and 18th against kickoffs was searching everywhere but Craigslist for help at a true infantryman’s position. Bademosi, whose 61 special-team tackles since 2012 are more than any player but Cardinals cornerback Justin Bethel, ranked in the Lions minds as necessary muscle.

He also was a Pro Bowl alternate last season as well as a Pro Football Focus pick for second-team All-NFL.

He is that distinctive, that exceptional, which has been the case since he first signed with the Browns after the 2012 draft ignored a three-year starting cornerback and track man (100 meters and relay teams) from Stanford.

His college pedigree might have said something about Bademosi’s athletic and intellectual DNA. So might his high school years, when he was a football and track luminary at Gonzaga Catholic High in Washington, D.C., as well as — aha — a rugby player.

In other words, a natural special-teams standout was, in hindsight, being crafted.

Bademosi’s decision to sign with the Lions was not terribly romantic. This was not the heart telling the head to migrate from Cleveland to Detroit because of something mystical in Allen Park’s offices, even if Bademosi knew life stood to be different with Quinn and a new front office aligned with Caldwell.

It was, well, a business decision. Dollars talk. But — cue the “It’s a Wonderful Life” music — Bademosi did sense there would be no problem getting comfortable with the Lions and their new culture.

“He’s bringing in great guys,” said Bademosi, speaking of Quinn, as sweat glistened on his forehead and face following a practice stint in 78-degree weather. “We’re doing things right, and that was clear to me. It’s people more than anything.”

Bademosi was a history major at Stanford, specializing in America’s past and the Harlem Renaissance, a verdant time in New York for artists and creative genius in the years following World War 1 until the mid-1930s.

Now he’s working on a different project: making the Lions better, sturdier, less accommodating, in a sphere of football a front office and Caldwell’s staff have attacked as robustly as any region heading into 2016.

Bademosi mentioned the joint efforts there. How he’s staying tight to special teams coordinator Joe Marciano, as well as defensive secondary coach Tony Oden — with anyone who might help him help a team that invested heavily in a player the Lions believe can win an extra game or two.