It isn’t often a rookie makes the All-Pro team, but Jamal Agnew was able to accomplish that feat for the Detroit Lions last year as a punt returner. Agnew led the NFL in both punt return average (15.4) and touchdowns (2).
He was also used some on offense as a ball carrier, receiver and decoy because of his speed and open-field running ability.
As a cornerback, which is the position the Lions drafted Agnew at, he saw limited playing time as a rookie. In fact, he played just 12 snaps on defense the first 16 weeks of the season before getting an extended look – 57 of 68 snaps – in Detroit’s Week 17 win over Green Bay. He had four tackles in that contest.
Now in his second season, Agnew would also like to make a bigger impact on defense if possible.
“I was blessed to be an All-Pro last year as a rookie,” he said Monday. “That’s awesome, but it’s a new year. That’s 2017. We’re in 2018 now. None of that matters anymore. You really just have to focus on always finding that one little niche that can take you to the next level that can get you better.”
For Agnew, it’s things like flexibility, footwork, eye discipline and some of those finer details he’s hoping make him a better cornerback in year two, and one that can contribute more in that role.
Agnew, along with Nevin Lawson and Quandre Diggs, have worked at the slot cornerback spot with the first-team defense in the OTA and minicamp practices open to the media.
“I’m just really focused in on doing what I can to get those opportunities on the field,” Agnew said of playing more on defense. “I’m going to do whatever I can to make that decision tough for the person making that decision.”
Agnew says the thing that’s advanced his development at the cornerback position the most has been matching up against veteran slot receiver Golden Tate all offseason.
Tate’s 65 receptions in the slot last season were second only to Jarvis Landry (68), and his catch rate of 80.2 percent while playing the slot was also second best in the league, according to Pro Football Focus statistics.
“That definitely helps me a lot as far as my mentality and getting better every day,” Agnew said of going up against Tate in practice. “There’s definitely something I can get better at guarding Golden Tate every day. He’s one of the best slots that’s been in the league since I can remember. I grew up watching him. He shows me something I can better in my game every day.”
Agnew joked that he comes to work every day with his lunch pail packed knowing he’s covering Tate.
Diggs played the majority of the slot corner snaps last season, but made a late-season switch to safety to fill in for Tavon Wilson, and has played the majority of his snaps in the open practices at safety. If that move becomes more permanent, the Lions will be on the lookout for someone to step up and earn a role in the slot.
Could Agnew earn his way into that role?
“I’ve definitely matured a lot,” he said. “Coming to work every day, you’re either trying to keep a job or you’re trying to take someone else’s job. That’s just the reality of the NFL.
"You really have to come with the attitude every day trying to get better every day. You don’t want to be complacent. You have to get better or you’re not going to be in this league for long.”
Agnew doesn’t want to be complacent and be known only as a good punt return man in this league. He’s hoping to show there’s more to his game than his terrific return abilities.