O'HARA: Martin has leg up on any kickoff competition

Posted Aug 6, 2015

Sam Martin has a leg up on any potential competition for who will kick off for the Lions this year.

Sam Martin has a leg up – and a powerful one, at that – on any potential competition for who will kick off for the Lions this year.

As a two-way kicking specialist – punts and kickoffs – Martin ranked among the NFL leaders in key categories in both departments.

Sam MartinP Sam Martin (Photo: AP Images)

On kickoffs last year, Martin improved dramatically over his rookie season in the two key categories of touchbacks and touchback percentage.

Martin was fifth in touchbacks with 53 on 75 kickoffs and tied for second with Pat McAfee of the Colts with a touchback percentage of 70.7. McAfee and Martin both play home games in domed stadiums. McAfee had 70 touchbacks out of 99 kickoffs.

As a punter, Martin was ninth in net yardage (40.1) and eight with 29 punts inside the 20, despite punting fewer times (68) than all seven punters ahead of him on the list.

Martin is in rather select company as a punter-kickoff specialist. Of the full-time kickers who ranked in the top 20 in touchback percentage last year, only five were punters.

Martin seems secure doing double duty again this year. However, kicker Matt Prater, who handled kickoffs for the Broncos in his six full seasons in Denver (2008-13) before signing with the Lions after the fifth game of last season, said during the spring workouts that he’d like to kick off.

Prater also said he was not campaigning to take the kickoff job away from Martin. Prater added that kicking off does not help making field goals and extra points, which is his primary job.

In Denver, Prater was among the league leaders in touchbacks and touchback percentage. His performance in 2013 in his last season in Denver – the Mile High City that is as much of an advantage as kicking in a dome -- was similar to what Martin did in 2014. Prater was second with a touchback percentage of 71.1 percent.

So, should there be a kick-off in training camp to decide who kicks off?

Kicking tees and a bag of balls at 50 paces at sunup?

From the man who knows best and holds the power of change at all positions, there is security in having two proven kickoff specialists, but the job isn’t open.

“I’m sure it probably will be bantered around for quite some time,” head coach Jim Caldwell said at Wednesday night’s practice at Novi High School. “Sam does a great job. We’ll see what happens. The number of touchbacks he had last year was pretty impressive.

“The great thing is we have choices. We have options. We have flexibility.”

How about being satisfied with the status quo?

“Sam’s been excellent at what he’s done -- unless somebody can outperform him,” Caldwell said. 
“And I don’t think there is right now.”

Martin’s sophomore year wasn’t perfect, but no punter or kicker has a perfect season. Unfortunately for Martin and the Lions, his biggest failure came on his final punt of the season – a 10-yard shank in the playoff loss at Dallas.

Instead of beginning what proved to be the game-winning drive inside their 20, the Cowboys got the ball at their 45 and drove to a touchdown that let them advance to the divisional round with a 24-20 victory.

In that game, three of Martin’s five kickoffs were for touchbacks, and the Cowboys never started a drive outside their own 20 on the other two.

In the offseason, Martin did not duck interviews about the shanked punt, and he has put his focus on the upcoming season.

Even rookie kicking specialists have to adjust to the physical demands of a 16-game schedule in the pros, and Martin was no exception. He wore down late in the 2013 season and was replaced on kickoffs by kicker David Akers.

As a rookie, Martin had a touchback percentage of 54.3 (38-70). The improvement over his rookie season was striking – 15 more touchbacks (53) on only five more kickoffs (75 vs. 70).

“The big thing I learned between my first and second year is how to manage my kicks,” Martin said. “I think I learned how to manage my body better -- my reps (in practice) and keep my body fresh for the season. Even through Dallas I was hitting them, which wasn’t the case my rookie year.

“That’s the biggest thing. I can’t get too ahead of myself. I’ve just got to be thinking long-term. At this point I’ve learned that as long as there are no injury issues, which there aren’t, I should be able to last four quarters.”

Martin wouldn’t shy away from competition.

“It doesn’t matter either way,” he said. “I’m open to whatever.”