Detroit Lions could use Jahmyr Gibbs on kickoffs; not everyone against new fair catch rule

Detroit Free Press

Rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs is “definitely” an option to return kicks for the Detroit Lions this fall.

Lions special teams coordinator Dave Fipp said Thursday that Gibbs could see time as a return man in 2023, depending on his role on offense. Gibbs averaged 23.9 yards on kick returns during his three college seasons at Alabama and Georgia Tech, and returned one kick for a touchdown.

“I think that’s definitely a possibility that he does help us, to some degree,” Fipp said. “What level that is, whether that’s a part-time, situationally or full-time, there’s a lot of different options with him.”

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The Lions drafted Gibbs No. 12 overall to be a dual-threat weapon on offense.

Gibbs amassed more than 3,200 scrimmage yards over his college career, including 1,212 yards receiving. He is expected to split time in the Lions backfield this season with David Montgomery.

But Gibbs also was a dangerous return man in college. He earned honorable mention all-ACC honors as a specialist in 2020, when he averaged 25.6 yards on eight kick returns as a true freshman. He had similar production on nearly three times the returns in 2021 (a 25.6-yard average on 23 chances). And he averaged 19.8 yards on 13 kick returns last year in his lone season at Alabama.

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Fipp said Gibbs was a dynamite special teams player, similar to last year’s No. 12 overall pick, Jameson Williams. The Lions planned to use Williams as a gunner in his NFL debut last November, but did not punt in that game and deployed him only on offense over the final five weeks of the season.

“I did love his special teams tape,” Fipp said of Gibbs. “Made a bunch of plays, fun to watch.”

The Lions ranked third in the NFL in kick return average last season, but let return man Justin Jackson leave as part of a special teams overhaul in free agency.

They’ve had success using backup running backs Jackson and Godwin Igwebuike as kick returners in recent seasons, and Fipp said Craig Reynolds and Jermar Jefferson also will be in the mix this fall for a job that won’t be sorted out till training camp.

“I think it’s going to come down to again, kind of (Gibbs;) role on offense and how we’re using him and all that,” Fipp said. “Obviously, he’s a weapon back there. He was a great college returner at Georgia Tech and Alabama.”

Mixed opinion on new kickoff rules

Lions coach Dan Campbell expressed disappointment in the NFL’s decision to ram through a change to the touchback rules at its spring meeting last week, against the opposition of coaches.

League owners approved a one-year trial of placing the ball at the 25-yard line for any fair catch beyond that spot on kickoffs. The rule is similar to the rule in college football.

“It’s very frustrating,” Campbell said. “But look, I don’t make the rules and so we — that’s a new rule, then we’ll live by the new rule. We’ll find a way to adjust, adapt, and still get what we want. That’s what you got to do. But I hate that we continue to take away from the game. That’s what really worries me. We just, we continue to bleed this league dry — if we’re not careful, it won’t replenish at one point. But listen, it’s the rules and we’ll make due and we’ll adjust.”

NFL teams have embraced the use of mortar kicks in recent years, since the NFL moved touchbacks from the 20- to the 25-yard line, in attempt to have teams return kicks from just short of the goal line.

Fipp said he does not think the new rule will dramatically impact strategy on kick returns.

“I don’t think it’s going to change the game a whole lot, so I’m different than some of these people,” he said. “I think what the numbers say is the shorter the kick, or the further out it is for the return team, like 10-yard line, if the ball’s kicked to the 10, I think the data says that you should return it, so I think we’re still going to see a lot of returns, even in those situations. There may be sometimes where it makes sense, and I don’t know all the rules yet. Like if you’re kicking off at the 50, does it still go to the 25 or not? But at the end of the day, my job is, whatever the rules are, find a way to be the best we can inside of those.”

While the NFL continues to tweak kickoff rules in the interest of player safety, Fipp said he does not see the latest change as another step towards eliminating kickoffs altogether.

“I don’t think that’s what they’re trying to do,” he said. “I think they’re trying to make the game safer. I think over the last handful of years, the league’s been incredible about that. They’ve done a great job making the game safer for the players. I think it’s a better game today than it was. It’s definitely different, but I think for the most part they’ve done a great job and I trust what they’re doing.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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