The Detroit Lions report to Allen Park, Michigan, at various points this week to start the 2017 season; rookies arrive early in the week and veterans on Saturday, leading up to the first day of practice Sunday. To get you ready for that, we’ll give a little bit more insight into each position group as camp ramps up.
Now, we’ll conclude with a look at the specialists and returners.
Players: Kicker -- Matt Prater; punter -- Sam Martin, Kasey Redfern; long-snapper -- Don Muhlbach; return candidates -- Dwayne Washington, TJ Jones, Jace Billingsley, Jared Abbrederis, Jamal Agnew, among others.
Roster locks: Prater, Martin, Muhlbach.
Can this group repeat success? If it does, special teams will be no issue. Prater was a Pro Bowler last season. Martin might have been, too, had Johnny Hekker not also been in the NFC. A challenge from the since-released Jimmy Landes at long-snapper never materialized into much competition for Muhlbach. This has been among the best units in the league since Detroit signed Prater during the 2014 season, and there’s little reason to think that won’t continue. The biggest concern might be Martin’s ankle -- he’s starting training camp on the non-football injury list -- but as long as that isn’t serious, Detroit is good to go here.
Do the Lions keep Prater past this season? No reason to think they won’t. The 32-year-old is one of the better clutch, fourth-quarter kickers in league history, still has an extremely strong leg and has not had any issues on field or off since signing with the Lions. He has a good rapport with Martin and should have at least a handful of good years left in his leg. His contract is up after this season, though, so a new deal for Prater could be something to watch at some point. He was a Pro Bowler last season; no reason to think he won't keep up that success.
What happens with the returners? That’s the real issue. The Lions have an open competition here after 2016's return man, Andre Roberts, departed for Atlanta in the offseason. There are a bunch of candidates, as previously noted, and who wins the job could dictate a few different roster spots. If Jones, Billingsley or Abbrederis wins a returner gig, it could mean the team keeps five receivers instead of four. If Washington wins the job, it could open up a roster spot for another player, because he’s likely the No. 4 running back at this point. Agnew should be on the roster as a backup slot corner, so the same thing for Washington applies there. That said, this is a job that could go down to the final preseason game. And it wouldn’t be surprising, either, to see the Lions split duties here if they feel one player is a much better punt returner than kick returner or vice versa. That would particularly be in play if the returner has another role on the team either as a depth receiver, running back or cornerback. At this point, I would not have an educated guess as to who wins the job.
Any chance the Lions make Golden Tate and Ameer Abdullah returners again? I’ve learned never to say never, but this would seem highly unlikely. Abdullah is the team’s starting running back and, considering the injury questions, it’s tough to see Detroit risking extra hits and further chance for injury on kick return. Tate has been healthy, but he’s also one of the biggest keys to offensive success for Detroit so his punt return days might officially be over except in emergency situations. If Detroit used either player as a returner, it would be pretty stunning.