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Patriots can't overlook needs on special teams

Patriots can't overlook needs on special teams

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent to that area, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a spot where the Patriots are constantly looking to add: special teams. 

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


Lucky for us, and for anyone who cares about assessing special-teams performance, Rick Gosselin of the Talk of Fame Network (formerly of the Dallas Morning News) compiles kicking-game rankings every year. Gosselin calculates scores for every NFL team by ranking them in 22 special teams categories and assigning points to their standing. Fewer points the better. The Patriots, according to Gosselin, ranking third in the NFL this year (231.5 points), just behind the Chiefs (229.5) and a ways off from the runaway winner Rams (196.5). The Patriots were excellent in terms of covering kicks, achieving the best mark in football for opponent starting field position. They were the only team in the league that, on average, had teams starting drives behind their 25-yard line. The average starting field position for New England's offense, meanwhile, was middle of the road (18th in the NFL). Stephen Gostkowski was once again highly effective on kickoffs and on field goals, ranking fourth in the league in kicks made and kick percentage. He didn't miss from inside 40 yards, and he was perfect on kicks of 50 yards or more, including a career-high (in Mexico City) of 62 yards. The operation among Joe Cardona, Ryan Allen and Gostkowski was generally very good all season, but in the Super Bowl, they faltered on their first field goal attempt. Gostkowski then missed an extra point at the end of the first half. Allen finished the season strong, with several well-placed kicks inside the 20, but he finished the regular season with 23 kicks downed inside the 20 (tied for 26th in football) and his net per punt was 40.5 (22nd). 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Gostkowski, Brandon Bolden, Allen, Cardona, Jordan Richards, Geneo Grissom, Nicholas Grigsby, Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones

WHO ISN'T?
Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Dion Lewis, Danny Amendola, Brandon King (restricted free agent), Marquis Flowers, Johnson Bademosi 

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


If you're looking purely at the three specialists here, the need isn't all that significant. People may want the Patriots to start sniffing around for a new kicker after Gostkowski hooked an extra point against the Eagles, but the reality is he's still one of the most accurate kickers in football, and his ability to place kickoffs is highly valued by the Patriots coaching staff. Cardona isn't going anywhere. Allen will also be back, in all likelihood. Belichick is a fan of some of the big-legged punters around the league, and Allen hasn't proven to be that kind of punter. But the fact that Allen was able to rebound from some eyebrow-raising punts early in the season to finish strong should have him back in 2018 without issue. The need here is in the kick-coverage and kick-returning areas. The Patriots are scheduled to have both of their returners (Amendola on punts and Lewis on kicks) hit free agency. Where will they end up? How much can Cyrus Jones take on after tearing his ACL last season? There are legitimate questions there. And when it comes to kick coverage, Belichick's two best players in that regard -- Slater and Ebner (coming off an ACL tear of his own) -- are slated to hit free agency. The Patriots have re-signed Bolden but other core kick-coverage players like Flowers, King and Bademosi are also scheduled to hit the market. Several could be back, but right now the core coverage units which served them so well in 2017 could have a significantly altered look next season. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


Arguably the best non-kicking, non-punting special-teamer in the game last season, Miami's Michael Thomas, is slated to be an unrestricted free agent. Arizona's Justin Bethel - in the top-10 in the league in terms of special teams tackles every year since 2012, according to Pro Football Focus - is also set to hit the market. Rontez Miles of the Jets and Nick Dzubnar of the Chargers, both among the league leaders in special-teams tackles, are restricted free agents. At kicker, there's plenty of experience out there. The Raiders have parted ways with Sebastian Janikowski. Graham Gano, praised by Belichick in the regular season before New England's matchup with Carolina, is a free agent. Same goes for Atlanta's Matt Bryant, Seattle's Blair Walsh, Washington's Dustin Hopkins, Tennessee's Ryan Succop and Philly's Caleb Sturgis. Punters available include Dustin Colquitt of the Chiefs, Houston's Shane Lechler and Cincy's Kevin Huber. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


Glad you asked! We've got multiple draftable punters coming out of the college ranks this year. Michael Dickson of Texas is already getting some Day 2 (!) draft buzz for his combination of power and control. An Australian Rules Football guy who won the Ray Guy Award as the nation's top punter last season, Dickson would be just the second punter taken inside the first three rounds in the past 10 years if it happens. Alabama's JK Scott (6-foot-6) and Bowling Green's Joseph Davidson (6-7) could also hear their names called on draft weekend. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


Davidson is left-footed and could pique Belichick's interest, but Allen's finish to the 2017 campaign should earn him the chance to pick up where he left off. The Patriots will surely be looking to bolster their kick-coverage and return units throughout the draft so don't discount a player's ability to perform in those phases when looking for potential Patriots fits. The quickest way to ensure immediate contributions here would be to re-sign players Slater, Amendola and King. Ebner could also be back following his ACL tear, which was relatively clean and uncomplicated. One late-season injury that could impact whether or not the Patriots make a move for a special-teamer in free agency was the one suffered by Jonathan Jones. It was of the non-contact variety on the Gillette Stadium turf. The severity of his injury is unclear, but if he won't be ready by the time the season begins, the Patriots would have to find someone who can handle his myriad duties in the kicking game. Bottom line: With everyone focused on the offensive and defensive holes on the Patriots roster that need to be addressed, there are others in the kicking game that will also require attention this offseason.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

B's last chance to send message to likely playoff opponent

B's last chance to send message to likely playoff opponent

TORONTO – The Bruins might be saying all the right things, and certainly, anything can happen with 24 games still left in the regular season, but they also know the laws of probability say that the Toronto Maple Leafs will likely be their first-round opponent in the playoffs.

The Bruins are just three points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning with three games in hand and three games head-to-head vs. the Bolts down the stretch, so nothing is set in stone, of course. But the Black and Gold also know tonight’s date with the Leafs at the Air Canada Centre is the last time the two divisional rivals will face each other prior to any postseason meetings.

The Leafs took the first two in a home-and-home series against a very different Bruins team back in mid-November. The Bruins got payback last month against a weary Toronto bunch at TD Garden. For the third time in the four meetings, the Leafs will also be without superstar sophomore Auston Matthews, out with a shoulder injury sustained on Thursday night against the New York Rangers.

Either way, the Bruins are wary that this will be a final bit of message-sending to a team they’re very likely to see at some point in what they hope is a long Stanley Cup playoff run. They’re treating the important, late-season game accordingly.

“Now I think you can forecast that this may be a playoff matchup at some point, maybe not the first round but maybe the second round. But at some point, it looks like we’ll probably have to play them, so you’d like to leave a reminder of how good of a team we can be,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. “I think they’re probably thinking the same, so I’m expecting a really good hockey game with the atmosphere on a Saturday night in Toronto and our guys with a few days off. Both teams have been winning a lot lately, so it should be a good game.”

It will also give a good window into what lies ahead for some of Boston’s rookie players in what should be as close to a playoff matchup as they’ve seen this season. With that in mind, all Bruins players are gearing up for their best while also knowing there’s a Sunday late afternoon trap game waiting for them in Buffalo against the Sabres.

“There are still lots of games left, but we’re aware of what’s going on with the standings and that this could be a possible [playoff] matchup,” said Patrice Bergeron. “We know it’s always tough games against them and very tight-checking hockey. We’re still trying to approach it as we’ve approached it all year, which is taking it one game at a time while pushing ourselves to be better. [Saturday] is back at it and then it’s a very busy schedule to the end, so these were our last few days of rest, I guess.”

Starting on Saturday night in Toronto, it’s 24 games in 44 days to end the regular season in one last major test of the resiliency, depth and mental toughness. It all starts with a big one against the Leafs in front of a Hockey Night in Canada audience with a final parting message on the minds of everybody.  

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

 

BEST OF BST PODCAST: Welcome back Celtics

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NBC Sports Boston Photo

BEST OF BST PODCAST: Welcome back Celtics

0:41 - The Celtics returned from the All-Star Break in style with a 110-98 win over the Detroit Pistons thanks to a 65-point performance from their bench. A. Sherrod Blakely, Kayce Smith, DJ Bean and Tom Curran break down the victory.

5:52 - More details have been released about the FBI’s probe into NCAA basketball. Tom Curran, Kayce Smith, DJ Bean and Jim Murray discuss how the possible violations by multiple schools will affect the economy of college sports.

11:49 - After saying that the Patriots knew that Malcolm Butler would not be starting in Super Bowl LII, New England safety Devin McCourty amended his statement, adding that the team didn’t know Butler would sit out the entire game. The BST crew continue to discuss the biggest talking point to come out of the Super Bowl.

17:20 - Lou Merloni and Evan Drellich join DJ Bean to discuss the current state of Red Sox Spring Training camp, from the absence of J.D. Martinez to the status of certain bench players like Blake Swihart.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE