Lions hope investment in special teams pays off

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

Allen Park -- After the Jacksonville Jaguars selected punter Bryan Angerer in the third round of the NFL draft in 2012, NFL Network analyst Rich Eisen emphatically declared, "Punters are people too!" That catchphrase picked up steam, but the larger connotation stands, punters don't move the needle. And it doesn't stop at punters. Fans don't really care about special teams.

Maybe they should.

Special teams generate headlines for the big plays — for the kickoff returns for touchdowns, the game-winning field goals or the blocked punts — but the ability to alter field position consistently throughout a contest is critical.

In a game of inches, a few yards here and there can be the difference in a close game. Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn and coach Jim Caldwell realize this and invested heavily in the third phase this offseason.

"We’re always looking to try and bolster that particular area," Caldwell said. "Often times, that’s underscored, where people don’t understand the importance of field position in our game. We have a punter who can punt the ball extremely well. We have a field goal kicker who is a real factor from quite a distance and those guys make a huge difference in the game.

"Particularly when you’re punting the ball or kicking the ball off, where they start with the ball, drives start average in our business, if you look at it statistically, you’ll see one of the more important factors in terms of winning ballgames," Caldwell said. "For us, that’s a very, very important area."

Punter Sam Martin and kicker Matt Prater both ranked among the best at their positions in 2015. Martin averaged a career-best 42.0 yards net on his punts in 2015. Prater knocked home 22 of his 24 field-goal attempts. He also recorded the second-longest make last season, a franchise record 59-yard boot in Chicago.

Detroit's biggest potential upgrades have come with the coverage units. Quinn went out and inked a pair of defensive backs, Johnson Bademosi and Tavon Wilson, who both bring extensive special teams experience.

Lions RB Abdullah waits for green light to play

Bademosi, a cornerback, got an eye-popping two-year, $4.5-million deal from the Lions. He's coming off a season where he recorded 17 special teams stops. He's topped double-digit tackles each of his four seasons in the NFL and is one of just four players to accomplish the feat during that stretch.

"It has to be important to you and it’s important me," Bademosi said on what sets him apart on special teams. "I study the film, I also take mental reps when I’m not out there."

Martin is thrilled by the addition. He was aware of Bademosi well before the Lions signed him and fired off a quick text to special teams coach Joe Marciano and Devin Fitzsimmons.

"Nice. I’ll take that. I appreciate that hook up," Martin said he wrote.

Bademosi joins a strong core of players on the coverage units. Although he's currently on the roster bubble, it could make for a lethal pairing with veteran safety Don Carey, who also has a nose for the ball on punts and kickoffs. Carey finished fourth in the NFL in special teams tackles last season, just one shy of Bademosi's tally.

"I’ve been watching him since I came into the league," Carey said. "I told him I try to get some insight just watching him, but athletically, he’s beyond where I am. I'm more technical. You can see his ability. It shows as soon as he gets on the field."

Behind Martin's strong leg, with the ability to generate superior hang time, and good coverage unit play last season, the Lions limited opposing punt returners to average just 6.1 yards per return last season. That was good for sixth in the league.

The team wasn't as effective on kickoffs, where opposing returners regularly tested the Lions by bringing it back out of the end zone and averaging 25.4 yards. Opponents started those drives just short of the 23-yard line, which ranked 27th in the NFL.

Having strong coverage on kickoffs could be more important this year, with touchbacks being moved up from the 20-yard line to the 25. Five yards is significant and will likely lead to special teams coordinators looking to come up with strategies to avoid letting opponents take a knee.

The final component of special teams is the return game. Last season, Ameer Abdullah impressed as a kickoff returner. His 29.1-yard average ranked second in the league behind only Minnesota's Cordarrelle Patterson. The Lions were less impressive on punts, where Golden Tate, TJ Jones and Lance Moore combined to average just 7.0 yards.

Even though he has yet to take an exhibition snap after offseason shoulder surgery, Abdullah remains in play to be the Lions' kickoff return specialist against this year, according to coach Jim Caldwell. Challengers for the job include free agent additions Jeremy Kerley and Andre Robert and rookie running back Dwayne Washington.

Roberts and Kerley are also also leading candidates to handle punts this year. Roberts averaged 7.4 yards when he last held the role in 2014. Kerley averaged 8.6 yards last year with the Jets.