Matthew Slater was named to his sixth straight Pro Bowl in December, and in the days leading up to the announcement, the Patriots’ special teams captain did a little campaigning.
But in typical Matthew Slater fashion, he wasn’t stumping for himself.
“I think Nate [Ebner] deserves it,’’ Slater said. “The way he’s played this year, I haven’t really seen anybody playing the way he’s played.’’
Just as he almost always is with his coverage, Slater’s comments were right on target.
Ebner was a monster on special teams, leading the NFL with 19 tackles, being the last line of defense as punter Ryan Allen’s personal protector, and delivering crushing blocks.
Ebner’s physical skills are obvious, but his mental sharpness and his knack for getting teammates on the same page can get overlooked sometimes.
“Nate’s communication and ability to make in-game and on-the-field adjustments, control, things like that — it’s obvious in the punting game — but it also comes up in punt and kickoff return as well,’’ coach Bill Belichick said in December. “He’s been very productive. He’s fast. He’s strong. He’s got good instincts. He tackles very well and he gets to the ball, can beat blockers. He’s a good blocker in the return game, but he’s kind of gone to another level in terms of his awareness and anticipation of things that happen out there. He’s enabled other players on his unit to play better or to put them in a better, more advantageous situation sometimes with his experience and ability to make the right call against the right look.’’
Slater, the league’s premier gunner, and Ebner are just two standouts on a special teams unit full of them.
Jonathan Jones developed into an outstanding gunner opposite Slater. The rookie has track-star speed and exceptional elusiveness. Jones and Slater often arrive at the punt returner simultaneously and land the first hit.
Brandon King (he can fly and his hits are loud), Brandon Bolden (he’s always in the thick of it), and James Develin (he’s a relentless blocker) are also outstanding on coverage units. In addition, Rex Burkhead, arguably the Bengals’ best special teamer, was added in free agency.
New England also has excellent options in the return game. Danny Amendola is solid as a punt and kick returner. He has reliable hands and excellent open-field moves and quickness. If he’s healthy, he’s Option A for both roles.
Julian Edelman is one of the top punt returners in NFL history but he’s so valuable to the offense he didn’t assume the role until the playoffs. Cyrus Jones is the heir apparent and flashed obvious skills but must improve his ball security.
Dion Lewis took over kick return duties and was very effective, but it would be a surprise if he continues in that role considering his offensive workload.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski had his struggles early last season but worked things out and was his old reliable self in the later stages — c’mon, who even remembers that missed extra point in the Super Bowl?
Allen was a consistent force throughout the season. He is equally adept at booming the ball or taking a little off and placing it where he wants.
Long snapper Joe Cardona arrived from the Naval Academy two seasons ago and has been flawless.
The Patriots will most assuredly add bodies for in-camp competition, but it’s likely those additions will come via rookie free agents rather than draft picks.
Primary 2016 starter: Stephen Gostkowski.
Expected 2017 starter: Gostkowski.
53-man depth chart: Gostkowski.
Possible draft option: Jake Elliott, Memphis (seventh round/UFA). New England had great success plucking a kicker out Memphis 11 years ago, so why not got back to the well? Elliott has been exceptionally accurate and clutch throughout his career. His lack of size (5 feet 9 inches, 166 pounds) is a concern because he doesn’t consistently get his kickoffs to the end zone.
Primary 2016 starter: Ryan Allen.
Projected 2017 starter: Allen.
53-man depth chart: Allen.
Possible draft target: Justin Vogel, Miami (seventh round/UFA). Vogel is a good athlete with great size (6-4, 216 pounds) and a very powerful leg. Handled both punting and kickoff duties in college and the Patriots love that versatility. (Remember, the more you can do.) Went from walk-on to scholarship player in Coral Gables, so working hard isn’t an issue.