FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots filled key roster holes this offseason with receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, right tackle Riley Reiff, and first-round cornerback Christian Gonzalez.
But the majority of their offseason focused on football’s third phase, special teams. Bill Belichick clearly was embarrassed by the Patriots’ performance last year, when they allowed a league-high three kickoff-return touchdowns, finished 32nd in key punting stats, and were near the bottom in kickoff coverage.
Belichick signed the best core special teamer in the NFL (in his view), gave his long snapper a record signing bonus, brought back Matthew Slater, drafted several special teamers, and made the Patriots the first team since the 2000 Raiders to select a kicker and a punter in the same draft.
“They got significantly better on special teams,” one NFC special teams coordinator said.
There’s just one problem with that: In 2023, the NFL is doing its best to minimize special teams, constantly fiddling with rules to reduce the number of kick returns in the name of player safety.
“My thing is, where does it stop, right?” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “You don’t want to take too many pieces away, and you’ll be playing flag football.”
Special teams have been a cornerstone of Belichick’s program since he became Patriots coach in 2000, and his investment in an oft-overlooked part of the game was one of the several edges he created en route to winning six Super Bowls.
But in response to concussion litigation that began more than a decade ago, the NFL has been tinkering with rules since 2011 to reduce special teams plays, particularly kickoffs, which have the highest concussion rates — rates that have been trending upward in recent years, per the NFL. Punt plays have the second-highest concussion rate, per the league.
Last month, NFL owners approved a rule for 2023 that allows for fair catches to become touchbacks on kickoffs caught inside the 25-yard line. The NFL hopes that this reduces kickoff returns from about 38 to 31 percent.
Special teams haven’t been totally eliminated, of course. And there is no question that the Patriots needed to improve.
Their punt unit was horrid behind Jake Bailey, now with the Dolphins. The Patriots finished 32nd in the NFL in net punting and gross punting average, had a league-high 10 touchbacks, and had one punt blocked.
The kickoff team was just as poor behind Bailey and veteran Nick Folk. The three kickoff-return touchdowns allowed were a franchise record and the first allowed by the Patriots since 2010. The Patriots allowed the worst starting field position off kickoffs (27.9-yard line) and had the third-worst touchback percentage (36.5 percent).
Belichick responded by going all-in on special teams. Former Lion Chris Board, whom Belichick last year called “the best special teams player we’ll play against all year,” got two years and $6.7 million. Long snapper Joe Cardona got a four-year deal with a record $1 million signing bonus. The Patriots brought Slater back for his 16th year, to go with veterans Cody Davis, Brenden Schooler, Raleigh Webb, and DaMarcus Mitchell, the five of whom combined for 1,264 special teams snaps and 20 offense/defense snaps last year (though not all may make the team this year).
Scouts from other teams expect third-rounder Marte Mapu to be a key special teamer while he develops as a safety and linebacker. The Patriots traded up to take kicker Chad Ryland in the fourth round, and they took punter Bryce Baringer in the sixth.
Sixth-round receiver Demario Douglas has added value as an “excellent” punt returner, per the NFC coach, and seventh-round cornerback Ameer Speed “was by far our best jammer on the punt team,” said Michigan State special teams coach Ross Els.
The Patriots also essentially have two special teams coordinators — Cameron Achord and Joe Judge, who was their special teams coordinator from 2015-19, scouted special teams before the draft, and has been taking a lead role with the punt and kickoff units during offseason practices.
But the Patriots’ investments in special teams come at the expense of depth on defense and especially offense, which ranks 22nd in touchdowns scored in the three seasons since Tom Brady left. The Patriots have had one of the worst receiving units in the NFL while using more roster spots on special teams-only players than any other team.
And beefing up on special teams is likely misguided in today’s NFL. In 2002, an average NFL game saw approximately 230 special teams return yards. In 2022, that number was practically cut in half, to 116.
The fair catch rule is only the latest change to reduce kickoff returns. In 2011, the kickoff line was moved from the 30 to the 35, decreasing returns from 80 percent to 53 percent in just one year.
In 2016, the NFL moved touchbacks from the 20 to the 25-yard line, which reduced kickoff returns to its current 36-39 percent clip. Now with the fair catch rule, the NFL hopes to reduce kickoff returns to about 30 percent. But few think the NFL is done there.
“It’s clear to me that they’re making an effort to eradicate this play,” said Slater, a special teams standout since 2008.
The NFL hasn’t made as many changes to punts, but punters have improved dramatically in hang time and corner accuracy. Last year saw 3.5 punt returns per game, compared with 4.9 in 2005 and 6.0 in 1978.
The NFL is also minimizing punts by constantly tweaking rules to boost scoring, which has been at an all-time high over the last decade. The four seasons with the fewest punts per game have occurred in the last four years.
Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, said the league doesn’t want to eliminate the kicking game completely.
“Special teams has been a really good part of our game, and people like it,” McKay said. “We’ve just got to find ways to make the plays safer.”
Belichick won’t offer much opinion on the new kickoff rule, other than to say he agrees with what Reid and Ravens coach John Harbaugh have said in opposition to it.
But it wouldn’t be surprising if Belichick is having buyer’s remorse over his special teams investments. Given the totality of new rules, there isn’t much of a payoff anymore.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.