Bill Belichick goes gaga over rookie punter Jake Bailey's early-season performance

Bill Belichick goes gaga over rookie punter Jake Bailey's early-season performance

FOXBORO -- There's little Bill Belichick loves more than a good special-teams discussion. One of those things, it would stand to reason, is good special teams play. 

We heard him go head-over-heels for his team's punt-block returned for a touchdown last weekend, and then one day after the win he went positively gaga (for him) over the work of his rookie punter Jake Bailey.

Bailey had what was arguably his best game as a pro in Buffalo, hitting nine punts that averaged 48.1 yards, including a long of 61. Only two landed inside the 20 -- partly because the Patriots had so many drives stall out in their own territory -- but he was a field-position flipper all afternoon. 

Currently the punter with the fourth-highest grade in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, Bailey is fourth in football with 10 punts that have been dropped inside the 20. His max hang time of 5.2 seconds is sixth in the league this year, per PFF.

"Jake's done a great job for us," Belichick told WEEI's Ordway, Merloni and Fauria show Monday. "He's hit the ball extremely well. His directional punting has been outstanding. He's really placed the ball on the sideline multiple times already this season to eliminate returns. 

"He's done a good job. He's put the ball up for our gunners . . . With that kind of hang time it brings both gunners into play. If you don't put enough hang time on the ball, a lot of times the backside guy just can't get there. Jake's put the ball up there with great positioning and height and hang time. Really helped our coverage team out. He's done an outstanding job."

It's not often you hear Belichick use the words "great," "extremely well" and "outstanding" in one answer in describing one of his own rookies. Usually that kind of praise from Belichick is reserved for opponents. And if it is one of his own players he’s talking about it’s someone like Tom Brady, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Matthew Slater or another veteran who’s been around and has a much longer resume.

Belichick went on to explain that he and his staff weren't entirely sure Bailey would be able to do what he's done, even when they took him in the fifth round out of Stanford last spring. They knew he could kick it a long way, but the directional-punting aspect of the job -- something that Bailey's predecessor Ryan Allen did well -- was an unknown. 

"I wouldn't say that's something he did a lot of in college," Belichick said. "We've done more as he's gotten better at it and he's performed well doing it . . . 

"You play to [a] player's strengths. I'd say he's shown that this is one of his strengths. I'm not sure that we knew exactly how good he was or wasn't just because he hadn't done a lot of it. But we knew he had a good leg. We knew he put good height on the ball. But his directional punting has been really good. We've seen that over the course of spring, training camp and now into the regular season. Think we're all gaining confidence in him."

Report: Patriots working out kickers on Wednesday>>>

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Here's why a lot of Patriots recent draft picks have Senior Bowl experience

Here's why a lot of Patriots recent draft picks have Senior Bowl experience

Bill Belichick was there. Josh McDaniels was there. The Patriots had a large contingent down in Mobile, Ala. for this week's Senior Bowl practices (the game will air Saturday on NFL Network at 2:30 p.m.), which should come as no surprise.

Just look at how the Patriots have drafted of late. 

In 2019, they selected Jarrett Stidham, Byron Cowart and Jake Bailey -- all of whom participated in the Senior Bowl. They also signed undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers, who played in the game. 

In 2018, they grabbed Isaiah Wynn in the first round, Duke Dawson, Ja'Whaun Bentley and Braxton Berrios after they'd competed in the Senior Bowl.

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Three of their four draft picks from 2017, plus two undrafted rookies, were in the Senior Bowl. 

From 2013-16, they brought aboard 20 Senior Bowl participants as rookies.

"The great thing about the Senior Bowl is that you're seeing some of the best players," Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said last spring. 

"There have actually been some underclassmen who have been incorporated into that mix. So you're seeing them against good competition and it's a different dynamic or different situation that they've been placed in. You're kind of taking them out of their environment that they've been in and kind of giving them something new and seeing how they handle it against good people."

The small-school players -- or the players who are asked to do something they didn't do much as collegians -- are the ones who have an opportunity to really land on radars during Senior Bowl work. For the Patriots, who constantly harp on the benefit of having seen players work against great competition on a regular basis when they hail from an SEC program, seeing some of the best in the country work against one another matters.

"It’s one thing if they do it against a lower-level team," Caserio said back in 2016, when asked about the Senior Bowl. "I mean, look, not all teams are created equal. Not all conferences are created equal. That’s just a fact. We can’t control that. So when you can see them actually play against really good players or good players that are at a comparable level of competition that they’re going to see every Sunday, that has to be a part of [the evaluation], no question."

The next year, the Patriots took two Senior Bowlers from smaller programs: Youngstown State's Derek Rivers and Troy's Antonio Garcia. 

"Where [the Senior Bowl] probably helps a little bit is players on a lower level that maybe haven’t competed against the same level of competition," Caserio said back in 2017. "Obviously, they’re making a big jump. . . Garcia was down there. That’s going to be a big jump in competition because this is what they’re going to be playing against. 

"With all due respect to whatever conference Youngstown State is in, there’s not a lot of NFL players in that conference. I mean, that’s just the way that it is. You’re going to have to see him against NFL competition, which the Senior Bowl is usually a pretty good indication of that because you’re talking about the top seniors in the country. It’s a part of the process. You’re not making a decision based off of that, but maybe a player who doesn’t have as much experience against that level, you’re going to see how he fares, and then you just kind of continue to move forward."

Some small-school prospects who may have caught Belichick's eye this week? 

Dayton tight end Adam Trautman was already considered one of the better tight ends in the draft class and seemed to only help his stock.

Safety Kyle Dugger -- who hails from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne University -- impressed. Ditto for Division III offensive lineman Ben Bartch out of Saint John's, who saw rushers from Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Ole Miss and other high-end programs and reportedly held his own.

Perhaps the most recent success story out of Senior Bowl week for the Patriots wasn't with a small-school prospect, though. It might've been with Shaq Mason, a guard coming out of a run-heavy system at Georgia Tech. The Patriots simply hadn't seen him do much in the way of pass protection for the Yellow Jackets.

But Mason got to the Senior Bowl, took to the coaching he received, and the Patriots took notice. 

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"The thing I’ll say about Shaq," Belichick said after drafting Mason in 2015, "is just watching him at the Senior Bowl, I mean it was only one week, but he made a huge improvement just in those, whatever it was, four or five practices, whatever it was down there. His stance is different. You could see each day progressively how he was taking to the coaching down there and his footwork and his hand placement and his body position. I know it was basic. It wasn’t like it was a big scheme thing at the Senior Bowl, but just doing things on a daily basis better than the day before, looking more comfortable doing them. And it was different than what they did at Georgia Tech."

Big school. Small school. Everyone had something to gain in Mobile this week. And that includes the Patriots. That's why -- with more time off this year than recent years -- they were well represented down there.


NFL Rumors: Patriots hiring ex-Rams assistant offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch

NFL Rumors: Patriots hiring ex-Rams assistant offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch

The New England Patriots reportedly have made an addition to their coaching staff.

According to Jim McBride of The Boston Globe, they've hired ex-Los Angeles Rams assistant offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch.

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Fisch's official role with the Patriots offense is to be determined. But now that there's an opening at wide receivers coach with Joe Judge joining the New York Giants, Fisch could be a candidate for the job.

He brings plenty of experience to the table having coached Denver Broncos wide receivers in 2008 and Michigan receivers from 2015-16. Fisch also coached Seattle Seahawks quarterbacks in 2010 and was the Jacksonville Jaguars' offensive coordinator from 2013-14.