Lions' Jamal Agnew, Danny Amendola lead versatile group of return specialists

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News
Lions wide receiver Danny Amendola works his way through the obstacles during drills.

Allen Park — Of the things he’s learned over the years, new Lions special-teams coordinator John Bonamego said a roster can’t have too many punt returners.

Bonamego admitted the days of players, such as Mel Gray or Eddie Drummond, on rosters exclusively as returners are mostly over, but the coach likes what he sees from his potential return specialists.

“I think that’s probably a very underrated skill,” Bonamego said this week. “Whether you return it 1 yard or 100 yards, it starts with catching it and being secure and making good decisions back there because I just met with them earlier (Tuesday).

"There’s really only two acceptable outcomes: The first one is a couple times this year we hope to run the extra-point team out there, but every other time, every single other time, we need to be snapping the ball to Matt Stafford and starting an offensive series.”

More:His star long faded, ex-Michigan State QB Connor Cook looks to make most of Lions chance

On Thursday during organized team activities, the Lions had Jamal Agnew, Danny Amendola, Tom Kennedy and Brandon Powell back fielding punts.

As a rookie in 2017, Agnew made the Pro Bowl as a return specialist, averaging 15.4 yards on 29 punt returns.

Bonamego said Agnew could be a difference maker in the return game.

“He has been in the past, and I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t be able to be in the future,” said Bonamego, who returned to the Lions this season after four years as head coach at Central Michigan.

More: Despite Wisconsin legacy, Lions rookie Beau Benzschawel has love for Michigan

Last season, Bonamego’s Central Michigan team was out-returned by opponents in average punt and kick returns, with 11 different players returning a punt or kick during the 1-11 season.

Last season, Agnew was playing 23.4 snaps per game at defensive back through his Week 5 injury after playing 5.3 defensive snaps per game in 13 games as a rookie.

Amendola, 33, has returned 185 punts in his 10 seasons with a 9.5-yard average. He’s also returned 152 kickoffs with a 23.5-yard average, but has never returned a kick of punt for a touchdown.

John Bonamego

Powell returned two punts and two kickoffs for the Lions last season, and Kennedy was signed by the Lions as a wide receiver after rookie mini-camp. At Bryant University, Kennedy played two years of college football and starred four years on the lacrosse team.

“The fortunate thing on our roster now is you have a number of players you can catch punts,” Bonamego said. “So when you have guys who have done it in games, that’s a big plus for us.”

The rules in the return game have changed since Bonamego was last in the NFL in 2014.

More: Growing family has Lions’ Zach Zenner thinking about career options

Before last season, the NFL changed kickoff rules, prohibiting running starts for coverage units, among other player safety changes.

“You’re seeing maybe more speed players on the coverage team,” Bonamego said. “What I’m seeing, I’m seeing a lot of times the return team is down there waiting on the coverage team to get back there. It has really changed it a lot.”

Fitting Patricia’s type

When asked why he fits in with head coach Matt Patricia’s staff, new Lions running-backs coach Kyle Caskey pointed to what he perceived as a shared strength.

“I thinking this is something that I can bring, is an energy to that room,” said Caskey, who has been with Cincinnati for nine seasons. “Not only teaching these guys what to do, but bringing an energy to make these guys perform at a higher level just based on the enthusiasm.

“Not just making it robotic and really having a relationship with these guys not only where it’s playing for the team, but we’re playing for each other too.”

As far as early impressions, Caskey said Kerryon Johnson is intelligent and quiet but possesses leadership qualities. 

Of free-agent acquisition C.J. Anderson, a former Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl champ, Caskey said: “He’s had a lot of success over time. He has a lot of things that he brings that he can tell these younger backs.

“There’s good things that guys like C.J. can bring knowledge-wise and bring a little savvy to the room based on what he’s been through.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.