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DEPTH PERCEPTION | SPECIAL TEAMS

Patriots’ special teams are among the best — and they’ve gotten better

Former Raider Cordarrelle Patterson has averaged 30.2 yards per kickoff return over his five-year career.
Former Raider Cordarrelle Patterson has averaged 30.2 yards per kickoff return over his five-year career.Eric Risberg/AP/File

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The Patriots have long enjoyed exceptional special teams play, and that should continue in 2018, as Joe Judge’s group is loaded with playmakers.

The main reason these units are so consistent is the time the coaching staff and players take in perfecting their crafts. Offense and defense are talked about more, but special teams clearly have special significance in New England.

“That’s the third part of the game, we take that very seriously,’’ Nate Ebner, one of the team’s top specialists and an exceptional punt protector, said last season. “We have our own parts during practice where it’s solely focused on special teams. We practice it a lot and that’s really important for our core guys.’’

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In the placekicking operation, Stephen Gostkowski, holder Ryan Allen, and long snapper Joe Cardona were nearly flawless last year — with Cardona’s low snap in the Super Bowl probably his only poor pitch in three seasons.

Heading into his 13th season, Gostkowski is coming off a tremendous campaign in which he connected on 37 of 40 field goal attempts (all three misses were from 40-plus yards) and was 4 of 4 from 50-plus. His most memorable moment came in Mexico City, where he belted a franchise-record 62-yarder after practicing in the Rocky Mountains all week.

Gostkowski has become a master at chipping his kickoffs close to the goal line, 9-iron style, to force opponents to return the ball and allowing his cadre of first-class coverage men to pin returners deep. He still possesses a big enough leg to blast it through the end zone when that’s the best strategy.

Allen is one of the NFL’s top punters. The lefty has the power to boom it and the touch to coffin-corner it.

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Long snapper Cardona pretty much spins fastballs like a pitching machine.

When it comes to the gunner position, the Patriots have some of the best. At the top of that list is Matthew Slater.

Of all the surprises in an offseason full of surprises, one of the biggest was that Slater, the perennial All-Pro and Pro Bowl special teamer, took a free agent visit to the Steelers.

But the longtime captain stayed put after agreeing to a two-year, $5.2 million deal. Slater is one of the fastest players in the league, and his quickness and wiry strength make him nearly impossible to block during punt coverage. He scoffs at double teams.

Slater will be joined this season by another wicked fast gunner in Cordarrelle Patterson. Patterson has excellent size (6 feet 2 inches, 220 pounds) and power. He can shake blockers at the snap and fly downfield and land initial hits.

Brandon King and Jonathan Jones are another pair of effective downfield blazers who are hard to cover (King because of his size, Jones because of his speed) and are capable of making momentum-changing plays.

On the second level of coverage units, the Patriots feature a slew of players who can shed blocks and bottle up returners and prevent opponents from flipping the field.

Patrick Chung, Brandon Bolden, Marquis Flowers, Nicholas Grigsby, James Develin, and Ebner are excellent open-field tacklers.

In the return game, the Patriots have two of the best.

Long before Julian Edelman became Tom Brady’s favorite target, he made his bones as a punt returner. Edelman is smart, quick, and tough.

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Patterson is such a phenomenal kickoff returner that the Patriots avoided kicking to him last November in Mexico City when he was with the Raiders. He averaged 28.3 yards last season and has an impressive 30.2-yard average (with five TDs) in his career.

Cyrus Jones, who was an exceptional returner in college and has shown flashes as a pro, will get plenty of chances to make an impact (and perhaps ease Edelman’s workload) in this area.

SPECIALISTS

Primary 2017 starters: K Stephen Gostkowski, P Ryan Allen, LS Joe Cardona, KR Dion Lewis, PR Danny Amendola.

Projected 2018 starters: K Gostkowski, P Allen, LS Cardona, KR Cordarrelle Patterson, PR Julian Edelman.

Possible draft options: P.J. Hall, DT, Sam Houston State (sixth round). Hall is ridiculously quick and active for a 6-foot-1-inch, 310-pounder. He fills a need as a depth tackle but what really sets him apart is his play on special teams. Hall shoots gaps and makes plays in the backfield. He had 86½ tackles for losses, including 42 sacks, and blocked an astounding 14 kicks in his college career.


Jim McBride can be reached at james.mcbride@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.