Twentyman's top four Lions' position battles on special teams

Posted May 6, 2013

Tim Twentyman breaks down the competition battles at kicker, punter, kick returner and punt returner

Later this month, the Lions will start “Phase Three” of the offseason training program, which is when they’ll begin the first of 10 allotted organized team activity (OTA) practices. The program will end with a mandatory minicamp June 11-13.

With each new phase of the program, the Lions are allowed to do more and more on-field work. As a result, position competitions will start to ratchet up.

The true determination of who wins a starting spot won’t come until late August -- after four weeks of training camp and four preseason games. However, the spring could put a few favorites on the board.

Note: These competitions could change over the next few weeks with additional veteran free agent signings.

We've already taken a look at the top five position battles this spring and fall on offense and defense. Here's a look at special teams.

When it comes to the Lions’ special teams, 2013 is a whole new ball game. Every position -- except maybe long snapper -- is up for grabs this spring and fall.

1. Kicker

Competitors: David Akers and Havard Rugland

Competition: The Lions signed Akers when Jason Hanson announced his retirement from the NFL after 21 years.

In 2011, Akers set an NFL record with 44 field goals made on 52 attempts. He struggled last year, though, making just 29-of-44 attempts, his lowest percentage since 1999.

Akers, 38, is a six-time Pro Bowler with a strong leg and is the favorite to win the job.

With Akers still healing from a hip injury, the Lions signed Norwegian kicking sensation Havard Rugland. Some might better know him as "Kickalicious".

Rugland (6-2, 240) became familiar with the sport only a couple years ago. He has been training with former NFL kicker Michael Husted in San Diego since November of 2012.

Because the team already had Akers on the roster, they signed Rugland because he was the best left-footed kicker available on the market. The Lions wanted another left-footed kicker so the holder wouldn’t have to flip-flop which side of the ball he held from.

Both players have a big leg kicking off, so the winner will be determined on who hits it through the uprights more. It’s as simple as that, really.

2. Punter

Competitors: Sam Martin and Blake Clingan

Sam MartinP Sam Martin (Photo: Keith Cline)

Competition: The fact the Lions selected Martin in the fifth round of last weekend’s NFL Draft makes him the favorite to win the job.

“We’ve been on him for awhile, been talking about him, had him in for a visit a while back,” Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said of Martin.

“He’s a guy that punts, he kicks off, he holds, he’s done PATs and field goals so he’s a very versatile guy. Really good kid. I spent some time with him when he was here in the building and he’ll come in and have the opportunity to compete to be our starting punter.”

Martin was the third-leading punter in Division 1-AA last year, averaging 45.9 yards last season, with 25 of 60 punts landing inside the 20.

The Lions ranked last in punting average last year, when they used three different punters, including former kicker Jason Hanson.

Clingan hasn’t played football since 2010, but earned a contract after an impressive tryout earlier this offseason. He had a 41.8 average his senior season at Central Florida with a career average of 39.9.

It seems like it’s Martin’s job to lose, but I’ve seen undrafted free agents outshine the drafted ones plenty of times.

3. Kick returner

Competitors: Joique Bell, Darius Slay, Corey Fuller, Theo Riddick, Steven Miller, Mike Thomas, Patrick Edwards, Devin Thomas

Competition: Bell recently told me that he’d like to have the job full-time in 2013. He averaged 27.0 yards in two attempts replacing Stefan Logan last year, but did lose a fumble on one of those.

Slay was an elite return man in the junior college ranks before he got to Mississippi State.

Fuller has terrific speed as a former track star and could have been drafted with competition for this role in mind.

“We see a lot of upside with him and we see a guy that’s got some ability possibly to help us with special teams while he’s developing,” Mayhew said of Fuller.

Riddick handled kickoff duties for Notre Dame as a freshman and has the foot quickness to do it at the NFL level.

Patrick EdwardsWR Patrick Edwards (Photo: AP Images)

Mike Thomas and Edwards could get a look at both kickoff and punt return duties and Devin Thomas returned 25 kicks for the Giants in 2011 with a 24.3 average.

4. Punt returner

Competitors: Mike Thomas, Patrick Edwards, Darius Slay, Reggie Bush

Competition: Thomas filled in for Logan the final week of the season last year. He averaged more than 10 yards per return in 2010 with the Jaguars.

Edwards averaged 15.4 and 14.0 yards, respectively, his final two seasons at Houston, with one touchdown each year.

It’s unclear if the Lions will allow Bush to return punts with how valuable he will be to the offense, but it’s certainly one of his best skill sets. He averaged 13.5 yards per return with three touchdowns in 2008 with the Saints. The last time he did it was in 2011 with Miami.

Ryan Broyles returned punts all four years at Oklahoma and averaged 11.1 yards per return for his career, but coming off two ACL injuries, it seems unlikely he’ll be in the mix early on.