We're a long way off from determining Week 1 roster spots, but we had one lingering question from our "Offseason Takeaways" piece last week that's worth keeping in mind as we build up to training camp in a little over a month.
How will the new kickoff rules -- which we touched upon in detail here -- impact how the Patriots construct their roster for 2018 and beyond?
Bill Belichick has proven he is as willing as any coach in the league, if not more so, to value players who serve the team primarily in the kicking game. In most NFL cities, the term "specialists" is typically reserved for kicker, punter and long-snapper. But in some cases, even though every other Patriots player meets with an offensive or defensive position group, there are individuals who might as well fall into that "specialist" category because the vast majority of their work is done in the game's third phase.
Last season the Patriots made room for Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Geneo Grissom, Brandon Bolden, Brandon King, Jordan Richards, Johnson Bademosi and Marquis Flowers at different points in the year despite the fact that several of those players almost never saw playing time offensively or defensively.
It's early yet, but it feels as though the new kickoff rules won't do anything to deter the Patriots from carrying the same approach. If anything, the new rules may encourage them to continue to load up on players who thrive in the kicking game.
First of all, this is a time of experimentation. No team is quite sure what other teams will be doing come the regular season when it comes to kickoff and kick-return strategy in 2018. Teams themselves have plenty to iron out before they settle on the techniques they want to focus on and execute.
Carrying more players who understand special teams and thrive there, then, may help prevent a team from being caught off guard by what's thrown at them when games really matter. A greater team-wide special-teams IQ could be crucial when dealing with the element of the unknown as it relates to the kickoff. One slip-up there early in the season could determine the outcome of a game.
Second, consider what we've heard from special-teams experts this offseason when it comes to their opinion of the new kickoff rules.
"The spacing is going to be the biggest issue," Slater told NBC Sports Boston. "Spacing and timing, ball-handling because of that space."
"There are going to be more single blocks,” Chiefs special teams coach Dave Toub said. “You aren’t going to have the point of attack where you’re hitting it and you have a running-back style [return], almost like an ISO play. It’s going to be more of a big-field type, more like a punt return."
Pulaski Academy head coach Kevin Kelley, widely renowned for his forward-thinking approach to the game and to special teams, in particular, told Yahoo! that the lack of wedge blocking -- outlawed by the new rules -- will mean there's little need for big offensive linemen on the field.
"Instead," wrote Yahoo! columnist Dan Wetzel, "the team is made up of quick skill players. The entire play is different. It’s more exciting."
Similarly, Dolphins special teams coach Darren Rizzi noted that there will probably be more skill-position players and fewer linemen playing special teams.
Not only does the elimination of wedge blocks render linemen less useful, but the requirement to have eight return-team players in a "setup zone" closer to midfield means the three deep return-team players have to be able to cover a significant amount of ground on their own.
There's a need for speed back there.
"If teams are going to load up on running backs, receivers, tight ends, defensive backs and linebackers on special teams," the Palm Beach Post wrote in its story featuring Rizzi's reaction to the new rules, "it’s bound to affect competition for the final roster spots."
Plus, because coverage players aren't allowed to get a running start, making it less likely they'll be able to pin returners deep in their own territory, fans may see more players willing to make returns from their own end zones.
That's what many believe, including former NFL kicker and CBS analyst Jay Feely.
Not necessarily mutually exclusive Ross, Goal of the new rules is to make it a safer play WHILE keeping the excitement value of a KOR for TD. If there are more returns (which I believe there will be) and it’s a safer play bc of new rules it’s a win/win https://t.co/sJVaiczLzt— Jay Feely (@jayfeely) May 23, 2018
More space. More speed. More returns. The element of the unknown.
Add it all up, and the Patriots could very well end up doing what they've always done when it comes time to trim rosters to 53 players at summer's end: Reserve a handful of roster spots for those who can fly, those who can tackle, those who understand the kicking game as something more than just a side gig.