It’s been three years since the Detroit Lions started looking for more ways to utilize Jamal Agnew’s playmaking ability.
It wasn’t much, a snap here and there, but the team found opportunities to plug the then-rookie defensive back into tailored offensive packages, if only as a decoy much of the time. The primary objective was making opposing defenses have to account for the dynamic return man’s ability in the open field.
Yet after just 30 snaps over three seasons, the Lions saw enough potential in Agnew as an offensive weapon. This offseason, they decided to pull the trigger on a rare mid-career position switch.
And if training camp is any barometer, they might be on to something.
“He’s handled it really well,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “I think he’s done an outstanding job, and honestly, it was something that we kind of threw him over there at the end of the year last year, a little bit in the wide receiver area and said, ‘Hey, what does this look like?’ I think we try to cross-train guys that we think can handle it and he’s someone that’s kind of had that cross-training before, and just looking at ways to try to get him the ball.
“We think that he’s pretty dynamic when the ball’s in his hands, so we were doing some of that last year,” Patricia continued. “But really, I think he’s done a really good job of running some of his routes and learning the intricacies of getting off the line of scrimmage. Obviously, at this level, press coverage and getting up and man-to-man and things like that with the DBs, that’s a hard skill to learn if you’re not used to it. I think his quickness has really kind of helped him there. He’s been able to kind of get off the line of scrimmage, and I think once he’s in open space, you can really see that quickness, that speed and his feel, which is really good.”
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Agnew believes Detroit’s injury situation at receiver a year ago precipitated his flip from defense. When Marvin Jones and Marvin Hall got hurt, he started getting more practice time on the other side of the ball. And when Kenny Golladay got banged up in the season finale, Agnew stepped in to play a career-high 10 offensive snaps.
“They just kind of mentioned we might just keep you over here and see where it goes from there,” Agnew said. “We haven’t looked back since. I’m happy. I’m loving it. Obviously, I’ll do whatever it takes to help the team win, but it’s been pretty fun on the offense side this year.”
If you didn’t know any better watching Agnew practice the past week, you’d have no idea this was uncharted territory. He readily admits it’s been a process learning how to handle the play calls from the huddle, and sure, he’s had an occasional drop, something he’ll need to clean up as he progresses with his development. But he’s also hauled in his fair share of tough catches while displaying above-average route-running ability.
As Patricia noted, Agnew’s quickness shines through, allowing him to often create instant separation at the line of scrimmage or when he changes direction within his routes.
“Obviously I like routes where I get to use my speed,” Agnew said. “I’m trying to get to that point where I can run anything.”
With how naturally he’s taking to the move, Agnew is impressing teammates, on both sides of the ball.
“Oh man, Agnew is a baller,” Hall said. “No matter what — the ball is in his hands, the ball is in the air — I feel like that guy says, ‘It’s mine, and I’m going to do something with it.’ He’s made a great transition, he’s a phenomenal guy, I feel like he’s going to do really well this year for this corps.”
It’s been fascinating watching Agnew go head-to-head against Justin Coleman, the man he backed up at nickelback last season. On Sunday, the two had a physical rep, followed by some good-natured chatter after the play.
“You know, I think it’s pretty amazing that he’s capable of doing that. It obviously shows the DBs are the best playmakers on the field,” Coleman said, with a laugh. “He brings a great competitive nature to the offense. They already had a really good receiving corps, and to add Jamal it shows that he’s versatile and a very talented guy, and can definitely help us on that side of the ball and on the special team area, as well.”
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Agnew’s confidence in himself has never been in question. It’s why he came into the league with the nickname Swagnew, a reflection of the swagger he openly flaunts. So despite not having a traditional offseason to work through the kinks of a position switch due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he never balked at the challenge, even as he enters a contract year.
“Not at all, to be honest,” he said. “I’m fully confident in my ability to learn, you know, adapt and get better. Like I said, I want to do anything I can to help the team, whether that’s special teams, defense, offense. I tell Matty P all the time, I can do it all. I definitely wasn’t concerned at all because I’m a pretty quick learner. It was just a matter of going out there on the field and executing everything.”