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2021 position breakdown: Special teams

The good: There's a lot to like about the job Lions special teams coordinator Dave Fipp did with the unit in 2021.

The Lions finished No. 7 in the NFL in Rick Gosselin's 2021 special teams rankings of the 32 NFL teams. Detroit finished top five in opponent starting point (3rd; 23.8-yard line) and punting (2nd; 49.2).

Punter Jack Fox is smashing NFL records with his two-year start to his career. He owns the NFL's highest gross and net punting averages for a player's first 100 punts. Fox finished this season second in gross punting (49.2) and sixth in net punting (42.3).

Kalif Raymond finished the season with the league's fourth highest punt-return average at 11.2 yards per return.

Riley Patterson made his NFL debut Week 12 and ended up going 13-of-14 on field goal attempts and 16-of-16 on extra points for 55 points scored in 2021. In Week 15, Patterson was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week after going a perfect 3-for-3 on field goals and 3-for-3 on extra points for 12 points scored. Patterson's field goal percentage of 92.9 percent is the highest all-time among Lions rookies (min. 10 attempts).

Patterson got his opportunity because of a hip injury suffered by Austin Seibert, who at the time of his injury was 10-of-12 on field goals and 5-of-5 on extra points.

Detroit finished fourth in the NFL with 28 kickoff returns of at least 20 yards. Godwin Igwebuike ranked sixth in the NFL with 697 kickoff return yards this season and fourth with a 24.9 return average.

Detroit was 3-of-4 on fake kicks.

The bad: Detroit's special teams were so good we have to get nit-picky with the bad, but Detroit failed to convert a takeaway on special teams this year. Those can be huge field position swings when they do happen.

Detroit could have been a perfect 4-of-4 on the year on fake kicks had Igwebuike not dropped Fox's fake punt pass Week 18 vs. Green Bay.

Key stat: In the 2021 season, NFL teams went a combined 9-for-56 (16.07 percent) on onside kick attempts. Detroit was the only team with multiple onside kick recoveries, leading the league with three.

Free agents: Jack Fox (exclusive rights), Scott Daly (exclusive rights), Kalif Raymond (unrestricted), Jalen Reeves-Maybin (unrestricted), Jason Cabinda (restricted), C.J. Moore (restricted), Josh Woods (restricted), Godwin Igwebuike (exclusive rights).

An exclusive rights free agent is a player who has just two or fewer accrued seasons and an expired contract. The Lions just have to extend a qualifying offer to the player, and they are unable to negotiate with another team and will be a Lion on a one-year deal in 2022. Fox is certainly a candidate to re-sign more long term this offseason

It's worth noting Reeves-Maybin, Cabinda, Moore and Woods here because those are some of Detroit's core special teams players on coverage and return units.

Draft: The Lions are in a good place at kicker, punter and long snapper. Obviously, the roster will change over the offseason, especially toward the bottom, and that will affect special teams the most.

The Lions are in the market for receiver and cornerback help, and some of those players could double as good return men. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has cornerback Marcus Jones (Houston), wide receiver Britain Covey (Utah), wide receiver Calvin Austin III (Memphis), wide receiver Jequez Ezzard (Sam Houston State) and wide receiver Velvus Jones Jr. (Texas) as his top five returners in the 2022 NFL draft.

MVP: It can't be understated how big a weapon Fox has become for the Lions. The length, and more important hang time, on his punts can instantly flip a field.

The former high school quarterback has a pretty good arm too. Fox completed his first career pass attempt Week 7 in Los Angeles, throwing a 17-yard completion on a fake punt. In Week 16, Fox completed another pass, tossing a 21-yard completion on another fake.

For his career, he is two-of-three passing for 38 yards. The last time an NFL punter topped 38 passing yards in a season was in 2012, with Rams punter Johnny Hekker throwing for 42.

Most improved: A number of candidates would fit here, but Igwebuike made the switch from safety to running back in training camp and was asked to return kicks for the first time in his NFL career. He struggled catching kicks early on, but stayed with it, practiced it, and it wasn't an issue on kickoffs the rest of the way. Igwebuike had some highlight kickoff returns later in the season. He's a young player with some upside.

Quotable: "These players have been a pleasure to be around," Fipp said at the end of the year. "They've given us everything that they got, whether that's on the field on gameday, but really more importantly in the meeting room and on the practice field and all that. They've given everything they had. They've been attentive to the plan and really worked hard to try an execute throughout the course of the year."

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