2010 Season Breakdown: Specialists

Picture Courtesy of Detroitlions.com

The Lions’ have struggled for decades with consistency, but one area of the team that hasn’t is the special teams.  The Lions have had Pro Bowl kickers in Eddie Murray and Jason Hanson, a Pro Bowl punter in Jim Arnold and Pro Bowl returners in Mel Gray, Desmond Howard and Eddie Drummond.

The Lions’ special teams took a sharp downturn over the last couple of years due to the absence of talent and change from special teams guru Chuck Priefer to Stan Kwan.  Kwan got a bit of a raw deal in the Marinelli years because Marinelli wanted his special teams to be so conservative that Kwan was severely limited strategically.

The Lions brought in special teams coach Danny Crossman and signed Stefan Logan after final cuts and returned the Lions’ special teams unit to respectability, the next step will be returning them to the elite status they enjoyed for so many years.  Many fans and announcers scoff at the importance of the special teams units, but anybody that truely knows football knows how important the specialists are to winning and losing games.

Jason Hanson:Jason Hanson had a down year in 2009 hitting on 75% of his kicks after having knee surgery in training camp.  Hanson had another minor knee surgery before the 2010 season but it didn’t appear to affect him as he hit 85.7% of his kicks before injuring his knee when he took a cheap shot to the knee from the Jets.  Hanson doesn’t boom his kickoffs like he used to, but he still is capable of kicking off.  Hanson’s leg is as good as ever on field goal attempts as he remains one of the most accurate kickers beyond 50 yards.  2011 Outlook: Hanson has only missed 9 games in his entire 19 year career, but he’s had three knee surgeries in the last year.  Hanson is expected to face competition for the first time in his career in 2011, but I expect Hanson to keep his job for at least one more year.

Dave Rayner:Rayner was signed midseason to replace Hanson and not much was expected of a guy who kicked for 6 teams in five years and had a career field goal percentage of 71.2%  Rayner looked shaky at times but his his comfort zone going 7 of 8 over the last four games including a game tying and game winning kick in overtime against the Bucs.  2011 Outlook:Rayner is going against a kicking legend who is 7th on the NFL’s all time scoring list.  Rayner obviously has the longer future, but he’s been inconsistent for the majority of his career.

Don Muhlbach: The only time you heard his name all year was if he made a tackle in kick coverage, that’s the best compliment you can pay a long snapper.  2011 Outlook: Muhlbach was nicknamed the Nolan Ryan of long snappers a few years ago and has only made one terrible snap in his seven year career.  He will be back in 2011.

Nick Harris: Harris has had a very up and down career in Detroit based on the numbers.  He had a two year stretch where he was a Pro Bowl caliber punter, but his numbers have declined in the seasons since.  He has had to endure a few different philosophies and some terrible coverage units which will skew his numbers.  Harris also spent a lot of time kicking from his side of the 50, which limited opportunities to drop punts inside the 20.  Harris kicked for better power this season, but his net average was his lowest in five years and he had a career high 54 punts returned.  Harris has also had 6 punts returned for touchdowns in his seven year Lions career, which is just all sorts of atrocious.  2011 Outlook: Harris has been a great holder for Jason Hanson and I believe that contributed to his job security.  Harris is at a crossroads in 2011.  He has the best talent around him on offense and on the coverage units and an inventive special teams coach as well.  If Harris doesn’t have a career year in 2011 the Lions will most likely start shopping for a new punter.

Stefan Logan:Stefan Logan was one of Martin Mayhew’s best moves in his two and a half year tenure.  Logan was cut by the Steelers after training camp and signed with the Lions after final cutdowns.  He finished in the top five in punt and kick returns, contributed as a receiver and change of pace running back and even covered kicks.  Logan finished with 1905 total yards, ran a kick back 105 yards for a TD and he recovered two fumbles on special teams.  Logan was named the the first alternate at kick returner for the Pro Bowl as well.  Logan not only was a threat to break off long returns (he had five kick returns of over 40 yards and four punt returns over 40 yards), but he was consistent (41 of his 55 kick returns went for over 20 yards.)  All the more impressive is Logan is 5?6? and weighs 180 lbs (per the Lions program, but I’m willing to bet he’s not a pound over 170.)  Logan gave the Lions a legitimate return threat again after lacking one for several years.  He’s got some big shoes to fill as the Lions have had their share of great returners in the past.  2011 Outlook: Logan will definitely be back as a return man and I think his versatility within the offense could lead to an expanded role.

2011 Offseason: The Lions won’t make any changes to the specialists on the roster, there will just be one fewer kicker on opening day.  I think Hanson wins the job if healthy and continues to perform at a high level.

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