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
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.