FOXBOROUGH - The list of players who paid their dues on special teams is a long one.
Dane Fletcher was a long shot to make the Patriots last year as an undrafted rookie free agent. He learned that the fastest way to make an impression was as a specialist, so he raised his hand at every chance: kickoff coverage, kickoff return, punt coverage, and punt return, the “big four’’ of special teams.
That’s how he managed to play 14 games (including playoffs) last season.
Kyle Arrington got the chance to start at right cornerback last season when Leigh Bodden went down with a shoulder injury, but Arrington had been trying to crack the window of opportunity for a while.
In 2009, Arrington went on a hunt for special team tackles, at one point posting five in one game against the Jaguars. He signed a two-year, $3.275 million contract before the start of this season, and has started three of five games.
From Matthew Slater, the special teams ace turned captain, to versatile linebacker Rob Ninkovich, there’s a not-so-small fraternity of Patriots who found special teams as the best way to stick.
“Especially for an undrafted guy, that’s about the only way to really prove that you can make it on the field and perform,’’ Fletcher said. “You’ve got to prove that you can perform on special teams, which in a lot of ways is a much faster game. Being on kickoff and kickoff returns and what-not, once you get a role on special teams, they might trust you on offense or defense.’’
The reasons are more practical than anything else.
“I know it probably doesn’t make any sense, but that’s really the way it works,’’ said coach Bill Belichick. “You’re not the starting running back or you’re not a starting whatever if you can’t play in the kicking game, then it’s hard to get those players active on the game day. If you do play in the kicking game, that leads to more opportunities offensively or defensively.’’
After everything he had experienced - being waived four times by the Dolphins and Saints, bouncing between practice squads and 53-man rosters - Ninkovich was willing to do whatever it took to stick with an NFL team.
He played in 15 games in 2009, his first season with the Patriots, and special teams was his top priority. But every so often he’d sneak in for a snap at linebacker. Last season, he started 10 games, registering four sacks and 58 tackles, making his biggest mark with two interceptions against the Dolphins in Week 4. He’s started all five games this season.
“Ninkovich is another example of a player who really earned his playing time in the kicking game, who then became a high defensive play-time player,’’ Belichick said.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis’s 136 rushing yards last Sunday against the Jets set the high-water mark for his four-year career. But asked about the area where he’s seen Green-Ellis improve, Belichick was calculating with his compliments.
“Special teams,’’ he said without so much as a blink, almost before the question was complete.
The Patriots signed Green-Ellis as an undrafted rookie free agent before the 2008 season. He was waived near the end of training camp, but landed on the practice squad. He wasn’t promoted to the 53-man roster until October.
Green-Ellis was an All-Southeastern Conference running back at Mississippi, so special teams wasn’t high on his to-do list.
“He wasn’t really very good at it,’’ Belichick said. “It was probably one of the reasons why he didn’t initially make our team. He improved in that area significantly.’’
At the time, eight-year veteran LaMont Jordan and 2006 first-round pick Laurence Maroney were supposed to be the Patriots’ primary running backs. But Green-Ellis ended up playing nine games that season (three times as many as Maroney) and carried the football 74 times (six fewer than Jordan).
He earned the carries by doing dirty work on special teams.
“I think he does a real good job for us in the return game and in the coverage game when we’ve asked him to do it,’’ Belichick said. “That’s actually led to him getting more opportunities offensively. He’s done a good job offensively.’’
Special teams is where Belichick said Green-Ellis took his biggest leap, and look at where it has taken him. After rushing for 1,008 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, Green-Ellis is up to 333 yards and five scores on 77 carries this season. His special teams responsibilities aren’t the same as they were when he was fighting for a spot.
“We’ve probably used him less now in the kicking game than we did last year or the year before,’’ Belichick said. “His improvement in the kicking game got him on the roster, it got him to the game, it got him opportunities to run the ball and that got him more playing time on offense.’’