For a long time, special teams has been for Patriots fans like getting your bed made at a nice hotel: handled with care and a small luxury not to have to think about.
Bill Belichick fusses so you don’t have to. The Patriots routinely devote more roster spots to core special teamers than the majority of NFL teams. That won’t change in 2019 but, as some of those core players have moved on, gotten hurt or just gotten older, the faces in those roles represent a changing of the guard.
The Patriots traded up to draft punter Jake Bailey in the fifth round and moved on from Ryan Allen, who’d held that job for six seasons and was a candidate for Super Bowl MVP last February. Brandon King, who played 62 percent of special teams snaps last year, trailing only Nate Ebner and Matthew Slater, is out for the season with a torn quadriceps. Keion Crossen, who looked like he could one day fill Slater’s shoes as an elite gunner and locker room leader, was traded to the Texans. Cordarrelle Patterson, an excellent kickoff returner last year, is a Chicago Bear, and it’s fair to ask if continued punt return duties are in Julian Edelman’s best interest. It’s time to find out who will fill those vacated spots.
“There is a lot of opportunity because, as is the case in the NFL, there’s been a lot of change,” special teams captain Slater said. “Guys have come and gone and then, a guy like Brandon King getting injured, obviously is a big loss for us. We’re looking to some veterans who have been here for a while and some young players to really step up.”
First, the returners. Gunner Olszewski was a surprise inclusion on the initial 53-man roster in part because of his return abilities. He returned punts and kickoffs during the preseason. The Patriots have a more obvious need at kickoff returner, but Olszewski also could spell Edelman as a punt returner to preserve the 33-year-old’s health.
Along with Edelman and Olszewski, Jakobi Meyers and Patrick Chung returned punts during training camp. Josh Gordon, Phillip Dorsett, James White, Sony Michel, and Olszewski returned kickoffs.
At punter, the assumption is that Bailey — the first full-time, right-footed punter during Belichick’s New England tenure — will be a difference-maker. His punts routinely hang for five-plus seconds; the question will be how his ball placement and chemistry with the coverage team translates against NFL starters who have game-planned and schemed as they will in the regular season.
“We feel like he was the better punter, and he also kicks off and he holds,” Belichick said of the decision to go with Bailey over Allen. “We’ll see how it goes.”
The coverage teams themselves should be monitored. The Patriots had ranked no lower than sixth in the NFL in opponent average starting field position in any year since 2005, and finished first in 2016 and 2017, before finishing 23rd in 2018. They got better toward the end of the season after an abysmal start — they ranked 28th in kickoff return yards allowed and 31st in punt return yards allowed through Week 10. Last season, Belichick was adamant that the new kickoff rules weren’t changing things drastically, but if the challenge of adjusting to those was a factor in the team’s struggles, they should have worked it out by now.
That said, the punt coverage unit will have to learn the nuances of Bailey’s punts as opposed to Allen’s. It’s a task that requires watching a lot of film to learn how his punts spin and where he likes to place them, as well as some intangible chemistry. That part is especially important when a rookie takes over for a well-liked veteran such as Allen.
“I think it’s important that we make him feel a part of this group,” Slater said of Bailey. “Make him feel welcome, make him feel comfortable so that he can be himself and so that he can ultimately perform well on Sundays. That’s a big part of it.”
Jonathan Jones projects as the top gunner opposite Slater, and Ebner should continue to be impactful. Without King and Crossen, though, there’s opportunity for others to step up and give the Patriots depth and future options. Obi Melifonwu and Chase Winovich are players to watch.
One spot where change has yet to come is at kicker. The Patriots didn’t bring in any competition for Stephen Gostkowski. Gostkowski missed three field goal attempts during the preseason — one was Bailey’s fault, as the rookie spun the laces toward Gostkowski, not out as he should have — but had no one pressuring him to keep his job. Gostkowski was fine last season, making 27 of 32 field goal attempts, 21 of 21 from 39 yards or fewer, and 49 of 50 extra points, but his 84.4 field goal percentage was below his career average (87.4). He’s 35, so it’s something to monitor.
The Patriots do have the option of using Bailey on kickoffs, too, if they feel they’d be wise to preserve Gostkowski’s leg.
The kicking operation cleaned things up in the final preseason game. Gostkowski went 3 for 3 on field goals with makes from 31, 40, and 51 yards.
“That’s an operation that involves a lot of precise timing and execution by the skill players at their primary job and role on the team,” Belichick said. “It’s always good to see good results, but again, it’s a long season. A lot of things will happen along the way. I would say, generally speaking, the conditions aren’t going to get any better than what they’ve been.”
As the weather gets worse and opponents get more tape to review, the challenge of keeping up those results grows. Consistency and execution this year is the top priority. But as Belichick often says, you can’t just build a roster for this year without keeping an eye on the future, and this is a year when the Patriots need to keep 2020 and 2021 in mind and develop some special teamers who can fill in recently vacated roles and ones that may be vacant soon.