With big year, Lions' Sam Martin can earn pay cut back
Allen Park — You might have heard Sam Martin took a pay cut. And you would probably understand he doesn't want to talk about that, respectfully declining to answer questions about his renegotiated deal. But The Detroit News has obtained a copy of the contract and things aren't as bad as they might seem for the longtime Lions punter.
In fact, Martin has an opportunity to earn back every dollar he surrendered to the team last week, simply by returning to the form that helped him earn the original contract extension.
The Lions slashed Martin's salary by $700,000 this season. In the process, they also made it so the deal automatically voids after this season, allowing him to hit free agency a year earlier than expected.
But if Martin can return to form as one of the NFL's best punters, he can reclaim part or all of that money, while setting himself up to cash in on a lucrative long-term deal next offseason.
According to the contract, Martin will earn a $300,000 bonus if he finishes among the top 12 in net average in 2019. He would get the remaining $400,000 if he finishes among the top three.
That second goal would require him to be elite this season, but it's not uncharted territory for the punter the Lions selected in the fifth round of the 2013 draft. Three years ago, Martin finished second in the NFL in the category and set a franchise record at 44.2 yards.
Net punting average is the easiest way to judge success at the position. It's calculated by subtracting the starting field position — whether via return, fair catch or touchback —from the distance of the punt. A 50-yard punt with a 4-yard return, that's a net of 46 yards. A 60-yard punt that bounces into the end zone, a 40-yard net.
After his career season in 2016, Martin has struggled, initially derailed by an offseason foot injury that carried into the 2017 campaign. Last year, he rebounded a bit, but his net average was still down five yards from his peak.
All offseason, he's been eager to get back on the field and prove the regression wasn't permanent. And to his credit, Martin's leg strength has looked noticeably better, as has his directional kicking.
He acknowledged he feels much better heading into this season.
"I'm not going to put more pressure on myself than I need to, but short answer, yes, completely," Martin said. "Statistically, I had a comparable camp to what I've had in the past, before the past two years, and mentally and physically, I'm in a really good place. Now it's just, 'Do it.'"
Even with the improved training camp, the Lions were able to leverage Martin into a pay cut based on his past two seasons. It likely didn't help that longtime Patriots punter Ryan Allen became available, along with several other viable options when teams cut down their rosters last weekend.
Had Martin opted against the pay cut and accepted his release, he likely would have quickly found employment elsewhere. There were several shaky punting situations around the league, including division rival Minnesota, prior to adding Britton Colquitt this week.
But the opportunity to stay in Detroit, a familiar setting and a dome environment, the decision wasn't difficult. And probably more so given he has the chance to earn his pay back.
Regardless, Martin is headed for a crossroads with the only franchise he's ever known, a year earlier than he might have expected. If he performs well, he's going to get paid, and the Lions might not be willing to meet the market demand next offseason. And if he doesn't return to form, a parting will be an easy choice.
Martin can't think about that now. He's laser-focused on being the best version of himself, starting this week when the Lions travel to Arizona to face the Cardinals.
"I haven't put much thought into that," he said. "I'm thinking about this season. I'll focus on that when it becomes a reality. For now, whether I'm a free agent or not next year, this is a big season. I just have to perform."