Patriots

How Patriots' investment in special teams is paying off

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How Patriots' investment in special teams is paying off

When Marquis Flowers first arrived Gillette Stadium back in August, acquired by the Patriots via trade with the Bengals, he was in awe.

"This is like an all-star special-teams unit, man," Flowers said to himself. "Every guy in here is capable of making plays. They have made plays, and they'll continue to make plays . . . Who are teams going to block? How are they gonna go against us? How are they going to go against this?"

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Special teams may be the under-appreciated art of our country's most closely-scrutinized sport, but those who are considered kicking-game specialists follow their peers around the league almost obsessively. That's why Flowers was so struck when he joined special teams coach Joe Judge's meetings. 

He sat with players like Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Brandon Bolden and Brandon King. He was reunited with former Bengal Rex Burkhead, one of Cincinnati's best special-teamers. Flowers would later be joined by other newcomers from around the league he'd watched before like Johnson Bademosi and Cassius Marsh. 

He'd studied these guys, he knew their reputations, and he quickly understood what they could be as a group. His prediction that they would make plays has already come to fruition many times over. 

Sitting at 7-2 through 10 weeks of the regular season, what the Patriots have done on special teams has made that phase of the game arguably their most consistent one. They are second in the league when it comes to opponent starting field position (24.82), behind only Kansas City (24.68), according to Football Outsiders. They are allowing 19.2 yards per kick return (fifth in the league), and 5.3 yards per punt return (seventh). 

Against the Broncos last weekend, Patriots special-teams units won them the game. A turnover on Denver's first punt return of the night . . . A 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Dion Lewis . . . A blocked punt . . . All momentum plays, all occurring in the first half, one shovel full of dirt after the next, burying the Broncos under the weight of their own mistakes. 

That the Patriots were able to take advantage of those missteps had Bill Belichick -- an assistant special teams coach for the Broncos in 1978 -- beaming in his weekly breakdown of big plays on Patriots.com.

"We certainly got a lot of big plays out of these units," he said. "Those guys work hard. They really deserve all the success they get."

Over the course of his nearly seven-minute breakdown of four first-half special teams plays, Belichick recognized more than dozen different players: Flowers, Burkhead, Slater, Ebner, Lewis, Bolden, King, Bademosi, Jacob Hollister, Jonathan Jones, Jordan Richards, Dwayne Allen, James Develin, Trevor Reilly and Stephen Gostkowski. 

Many of those players are seldom (if ever) used offensively or defensively, but it's long been part of Belichick's team-building philosophy to carry special-teams specialists. Even as the number of impactful kicking-game plays are being reduced -- with new rules put in place in the name of player safety -- the Patriots have seen that approach pay dividends. 

Opposing coaches have taken notice as well. 

"I think they've got excellent personnel," said Raiders coach Jack Del Rio. "They keep several spots specifically for special-teams roles, and guys like Nate Ebner, and Matt Slater, Brandon King, these are guys that show up that don't necessarily play a role defensively or offensively, but they certainly show up on special teams. 

"Both of their returners are really good as well. Their kickoff return last week against Denver . . . really was a huge momentum play in the game. To me, they obviously put a lot of emphasis in that area, and it certainly paid dividends last week when they dominated the game. A large part of that was on special teams."

Glance up and down at the list of Patriots special-teamers, a list that has often included practice-squadder Geneo Grissom in recent seasons, and a few traits stick out: Size and speed. But experience and on-the-fly intelligence have taken this assembly of athletes and turned them into a weapon. 

Even young players, like Jones (second season) and King (third) have established reputations. Teams know if they're not accounted for, they can ruin plays. But at the same time, not everyone can be doubled.

It's a problem.  

"With so many guys out on the field that are so productive, it helps," King said. "Sometimes they're running away from people to get to me to make a play. Sometimes I get double-teamed. Sometimes someone else gets double-teamed, and it singles me up. Having so many productive players on the field really helps out the whole coverage unit. There's so many things we can do to keep teams on their toes."

Despite having so many first-year Patriots playing such key roles in the kicking game, under the tutelage of Judge and his assistant Ray Ventrone, the communication on their coverage units has become relatively seamless. 

King explained that there are times when a return unit will change it's pre-kick look, and if one coverage player recognizes it before the rest, he will be able to get it communicated down the line -- even after they've all taken off in a dead sprint down the field. 

"We'll be playing one play when the ball is kicked but playing something totally different when we're 20 yards down the field," King said. "I've never been anywhere where you can actually do that."

One of the unit's best communicators, it's captain, Slater, left the Broncos game with a hamstring injury that's expected to force him to miss time. But even with Slater out, the experience level of the group is such that some of the non-verbal back-and-forth coverage players take part in shouldn't fall off. 

Bademosi, a core special-teamer for five years in Cleveland and Detroit before arriving in New England, will likely play a role in filling in for Slater when it comes to covering kicks and punts. 

"There really is a lot of communication on those plays," Belichick said. "Not a lot of it is verbal. It’s just visual recognition so that two or three of us running down the field together, we see the same thing and we know how we’re going to react to it, how I’m going to react to it, how the guy beside me is going to react to it so that you have the lanes covered and you defend the return they’re trying to set up. There’s definitely a lot of, let’s call it visual communication on those plays . . . 

"The players that are on that team -- [Judge] and [Ventrone] have done a great job with them and given them the awareness of the blocking schemes and the types of returns we’re going to face and given them opportunities to work off of each other to try to create space in the coverage so that we can get down there and try to penetrate. Those guys have worked hard at that. They do a lot of extra things on their own . . . They’ve played well for us all year. Our field position on those plays has been outstanding."

The Patriots have made an investment. Gostkowski is one of the highest-paid kickers in the league due in part to the fact that he's able to drill well-placed kicks that encourage returns. The number of roster spots committed to "teams" is rare. And when it comes to practice time, the kicking game doesn't get squeezed. 

That's evident at training camp when large portions of practice are devoted to kickoffs, punts and returns, and Judge can be heard from across the field coaching things the way he learned them from Belichick and former Patriots special teams czar Scott O'Brien.

"People like to forget about special teams," Flowers said. "We don't. Special teams is huge, man. It's a game-changing and momentum-changing play. You only get one shot at it. It's a huge. It's part of the game. That's why when you win in all three phases, you win big."

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Patriots get Edelman back, but what about Amendola?

Patriots get Edelman back, but what about Amendola?

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 at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a position where the Patriots have numbers but could see two key veterans depart via free agency: Receiver. 

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HOW THEY PERFORMED:


Danny Amendola was a machine in the postseason. Chris Hogan was dynamite in the Super Bowl after a midseason shoulder injury that limited him to nine regular-season games. Brandin Cooks was very good throughout the majority of the regular season, putting up numbers that made him one of the league's most productive deep threats - and that's without the penalty yardage he drew. It wasn't a dominant season from this unit, but the group lost its most consistent performer when Julian Edelman tore his ACL in the preseason. Malcolm Mitchell's year-long knee injury also sapped this group of some depth. Despite some regular-season hiccups - it was a forgettable final month of the before the Wild-Card Round bye -- what Chad O'Shea's group did in the playoffs showed just how valuable it was for Tom Brady to have a handful of trustworthy receivers at his disposal. They checked in with a "B" in our final grades for 2017.

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Kenny Britt, Malcolm Mitchell, Cody Hollister, Riley McCarron

WHO ISN'T?
Danny Amendola, Bernard Reedy, Matthew Slater

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


Brady should have his top three options back for 2018 so the need here can't be considered more than a 5 out of 10 on the Gary Tanguay Memorial "How Concerned Are You?!?" Meter. That said, the group needs some trustworthy depth. Especially if Amendola, 32, who has been willing to take less to remain in New England, decides he'd like to max out his value elsewhere. He's right there with Edelman, who turns 32 in May, as the most clutch postseason receiver Brady's had since Troy Brown. Dorsett and Britt are physically-gifted options who could benefit from a full offseason in the offense, but are they strong enough candidates to serve as the No. 4? And what about Mitchell? What does his future hold after missing his entire sophomore season? Moreover, and this wouldn't impact the offense so much as it would the kicking game and the level of leadership in the locker room, but Slater's loss would be monumental. If both Slater and Amendola return, the need here can't be considered close to dire. But a young option in the draft - either a burner who could provide insurance if Cooks opts for free agency next offseason, or someone who profiles as a true slot - would be a wise investment. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


There's a potpourri of pass-catching talent available on the market this offseason. The biggest names available are receivers the Patriots know well from their time in the AFC East: Jarvis Landry and Sammy Watkins. One's a slot. The other's a jack-of-all-trades but master of none, who struggled to put up numbers in a highly-productive Rams offense in 2017. Then there's Jacksonville's physical outside-the-numbers option Allen Robinson (coming off an ACL tear) and Arizona speedster John Brown. Other field-stretchers who could be had include Seattle's Paul Richardson, Atlanta's Taylor Gabriel and Arizona's Jaron Brown. Buffalo's Jordan Matthews (25 years old) is a bigger slot, sort of a younger version of Eric Decker (31), who also happens to be a free agent this offseason. Keep an eye on Denver's Emmanuel Sanders, who could become available as a cap casualty. The Patriots tried to bring him aboard as a restricted free agent years ago and it would make sense if they were still interested. He caught six passes for 137 yards in a Week 10 loss to New England last season. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


After Alabama's Calvin Ridley, there seems to be some confusion as to which draft-eligible receivers deserve to take their place at the top of the class. Clemson's Deon Cain (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) has the size and speed to be a starter at the next level, but he was plagued by lapses in concentration that led to drops and false-start penalties. Courtland Sutton of SMU has an NFL-ready frame (6-4, 218), but probably doesn't have the athleticism to threaten defenses deep down the field as a pro. For teams interested in slot options, Texas A&M's Christian Kirk and Maryland's DJ Moore look like two of the best available. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


There may be little to address here if Amendola is back in the fold. If the Patriots are looking for young depth, though, there are plenty of options. Miami's Braxton Berrios could probably be had on Day 3, and he's already drawing comparisons to Amendola for his work in the slot, his toughness, and his ability to contribute as a returner. The Patriots could also dip into the Texas Tech pool after missing on both Amendola and Wes Welker in the draft in years past by taking Keke Coutee. He's slight (5-11, 180) but can play inside and out, has speed to burn, and could return kicks. If Belichick and Nick Caserio want to go with a bigger slot who will be a good character guy, Penn State's four-year starter Daesean Hamilton (6-1, 205) would make sense in the middle rounds. 

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The Gronk dilemma is a sticky one for Patriots

The Gronk dilemma is a sticky one for Patriots

The quote’s been credited to a whole lot of coaches. It doesn’t matter who actually said it. What matters is how much truth there is in the saying, “Once an NFL player starts considering retirement, he’s already gone.”

There are myriad variations but they all arrive at the same spot. Once a player talks about hanging ‘em up, he’s given mental traction to feelings of football ambivalence. Employer beware.

Immediately after the Super Bowl, Gronk was asked about possible retirement.

He did nothing to spike the idea.

“I don’t know how you heard that but I’m definitely going to look at my future for sure,” he said. "I’m going to sit down the next couple weeks and see where I’m at.”

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Rob Gronkowski’s gone past idle musing about retirement. The “that” is the smoking gun there, obviously referring to something that had been ongoing.

In the two weeks since the Super Bowl, we’ve learned Gronk’s  gotten advice from Sly Stallone and The Rock about how much dough he can make in action movies  and that folks in the WWE would offer Gronk a deal similar to Ronda Rousey’s.

Is this an orchestrated attempt to create some urgency with the Patriots so they give Gronk a bump that makes it more worth his while (he’s on the books for salaries of $8 million and $9 million the next two seasons)?

Is this an effort to dip a toe in the entertainment pool while his NFL marketability remains near its apex? A Brady-esque effort to set up a post-football career while still continuing in the main vocation?

Or is it simply what it is – a 28-year-old whose body’s been through the wringer since college using common sense to realize that his position and style of play are going to exact a physical cost on him for the rest of his life?

Yes. Yes. And yes. It’s all of the above.

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And that’s why the Patriots have to take this very seriously.

Gronk and his family have had an eye on his football mortality since he was 19. Because of an insurance policy taken out by his father, Gordie, while Gronk was at Arizona, Gronk could have retired from football and received $4 million tax-free. He considered it as his recuperation from back surgery left him concerned he wouldn’t be able to walk correctly again.

He declared for the draft in 2010 to maximize his earning potential. And he bought in. Then 2012 happened. 

He broke his arm during the regular season and had a plate inserted in his forearm. When he rebroke the arm just above the plate in his first game back, it was described as a fluke. Worst-case scenario. But that was small consolation. And when an infection developed in the arm in early 2013, another surgery was necessary. And the convalescence from that ensued. Then came a back surgery in June of 2013. Then came a longer-than-expected recovery that stretched well into the 2013 regular season and a blown ACL when he did return.

The 2014 season was injury-free, but when Gronk was hit in the knee against Denver in 2015, you could sense his panic as he writhed on the field that something was terribly wrong. There wasn’t. But the team and the Gronkowski Camp released a joint statement about his timetable for return then Gronk underscored his intention of not returning until he was “100 percent.”

The 2016 season ended prematurely with another back injury suffered against the Jets and another surgery. That injury followed soon after a thunderous hit was laid on him by Seattle’s Earl Thomas. And his 2017 playoff run was marred by a concussion suffered in the AFC Championship Game.

So it’s best to remember all that context when eye-rolling about how the Patriots have had to bend over backwards to accommodate Gronk. His care and feeding are a lot different because A) he came to the NFL with injuries that gave him perspective; B) he got burned when he came back quickly from the broken arm; C) the 2013 whisper campaign painting him as a malingerer left a dent and D) his family is uniquely attuned to NFL reality that it’s a business and you best protect your only asset – your body.

The branding and the marketing has felt hamhanded at times but that’s the nature of the business these days and - in hindsight – it’s been a boon for a player who signed a “safe” six-year, $54M contract in 2011 that’s now severely outdated.

So what are the Patriots to do with a 28-year-old who’s suffered multiple knee, head and back injuries and is openly talking about wrapping it up?

They can’t just sit with their hands folded in their laps and wait until Gronk gets around to deciding. They need to know is he in or is he out? Or if he’s completely ambivalent, at which point, would trading him be a horrific idea?

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The irony is, Gronk told me in December that he’s never felt better. “I’m having fun playing football again,” he told me. His body held him hostage until he changed the way he trained and now the results from increased flexibility are obvious in his statistics, his quickness and the types of catches he was able to make last year.

He’s a Hall of Famer if he never plays another down. It’s not hard to make a persuasive argument that he’s the best tight end to ever play.

But how do the Patriots proceed with a legend that – for all the right reasons – isn’t sure he wants to keep playing? It’s a lot to wrestle with.