Jake Bailey's emergence as Patriots' punting 'weapon' key as team's identity shifts

Jake Bailey's emergence as Patriots' punting 'weapon' key as team's identity shifts

FOXBORO — Johnny Hekker stood among a throng of reporters and others wielding microphones during the Super Bowl's annual media night, probably unsure of what to expect.

Players can be lobbed everything from Xs and Os questions to marriage proposals at the league's annual Super Bowl circus event. At one point, Hekker fielded a question that seemed to fall somewhere in the middle. He was asked what he thought of Bill Belichick's glowing description of him as a player.

Belichick called Hekker "a huge weapon" back in 2016. He followed up that week, more than two years later, saying Hekker is, "a tremendous player. Great athlete. He’s a weapon."

Hekker joked he might get "WEAPON" tattooed across his abs to commemorate Belichick's particularly complimentary scouting report.

People latched onto Belichick's Hekker comments when they dropped because they seemed to capture the coach's affinity for special teams perfectly. Here was a punter — someone who's not going to end up in highlight shows or as any fan's favorite player in the Madden video game series — who was drawing fawning praise from arguably the greatest football mind of all time.

The emphasis Belichick has placed on the kicking game has been well-documented, as has his appreciation for good special teams players around the league. But this year it's been fascinating to hear him discuss one of his own: rookie punter Jake Bailey.

It looks like Belichick finally has a punting "weapon" all his own. In fact, Bailey is one of only two Patriots (Matthew Slater is the other) who leads Pro Bowl voting at his position.

After Bailey dropped six of his eight punts inside the Philadelphia 20-yard line on Sunday — a 17-10 win that hinged largely on field position — Belichick lauded this year's fifth-round pick out of Stanford for being able to handle windy conditions on the road and execute.

"He’s a great kid," Belichick said. "He works hard. He’s really played well for us this entire season and he’s been so valuable to this team and he proved it out there today."

For his efforts, Bailey earned AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors for the second time this season. Before the award was announced, when given the opportunity to discuss Bailey's importance to the outcome of Sunday's game during a conference call, Belichick obliged again.

"Yeah, Jake did an excellent job for us punting, holding," Belichick said. "Kickoffs were – we had one there that he missed, but overall, he’s hit the ball well. He’s hit the ball well for us all year since Steve [Gostkowski] was out. But, Jake’s had a great year for us and he continues to come in with some really big plays there both ... flipping the field position and also on the plus-50 of getting the ball up there and making it tough for [Eagles returner Boston] Scott to handle."

Bailey is now tied for first in the league when it comes to punts downed inside the 20-yard line with Titans punter Brett Kern (32). He's only had 18 of his 56 punts (third in the NFL) returned, giving him a 32.1 return percentage (sixth). His 5.4 yards allowed per return — thanks in part to a talented and experienced coverage unit, as well as his impressive hang time — also put him in the top-10 at his position (ninth).

"I think we're doing a pretty good job," special teams captain Matthew Slater said after the game Sunday. "We're never satisfied. There's always room for improvement. But we have a young fella that's doing a heckuva job kicking the ball for us and he's giving our coverage a chance."

Slater added: "As much as we want to say about Jake and the way he's playing, he's a fantastic young man. I really think his play is a result of who he is. I can't say enough about his character, the way he's bought in, the way he supports his teammates, the way he's a professional. He's just a great kid. You really appreciate a young player like that. I'm thankful to have a relationship with guys like that on this team. Can't say enough good things about him."

Slater's not alone. On Tom Brady's weekly WEEI appearance with The Greg Hill Show, he called what the rookie has done "exceptional." And in describing the strengths of the Patriots team at the moment —defense and special teams — Brady noted that Bailey's been a key piece. He's not only punting well, but he's taken to kickoff duties with Gostkowski out, using his powerful right leg to drive 21 touchbacks on 35 opportunities. The average opponent starting field position after one of Bailey's kicks is the 24.2-yard line, which is 11th among kickers with at least 35 kickoffs.

For Belichick, Bailey's start to his career has been rare ... and not only because he's right-footed when the coach has long preferred lefty punters.

In his two decades as head coach, as much as he reveres top punters around the league, Belichick has never had a punter make a Pro Bowl or finish among the best in the league in All-Pro voting. As a franchise, the Patriots have had one punter make the Pro Bowl: Rich Camarillo in 1983.

Ryan Allen had what likely amounted to the most memorable punting performance in team history during last season's Super Bowl. He had three of his five punts downed inside the Rams 20-yard line and only had two returned for 12 total yards, decidedly out-punting Hekker — his former college teammate — on the sport's biggest stage. The Rams couldn't sustain long drives and managed only three points.

But what Bailey is doing over the course of the season is something the Patriots haven't seen in some time, according to Pro Football Focus. He's currently graded as the fourth-best punter in the league, whereas Allen — signed as an undrafted rookie in 2013 — never finished a season graded higher than 19th. In Allen's last three seasons with the team, he graded out as the No. 26, 36 and 24 punter in football.

Bailey hasn't been dubbed a "weapon" by his head coach just yet. But on one of the best special teams units in the league — the Patriots rank third this season, per PFF — that's what he is.

It's no wonder Belichick is happy to have him. And according to the coach, Bailey's only getting better.

“Yeah. I’d say at Stanford, not a lot of tough conditions out there – out there playing Arizona State and Arizona and UCLA and all," Belichick said. "But he’s had a lot of, I would say, challenging conditions out here — both in the spring, and then as we’ve gone through the regular season. This year there have been days out there where it’s been cold, rainy, windy, and I think he learned something every day.

"There’s cross winds and there’s winds in your face and it’s kicking with the wind and all that. There’s challenges in every one of them. If you’re kicking with the wind, that’s an advantage to the punter, but handling the snap, which is coming back into the wind, wobbles and things like that. It’s a little tougher snap for the snapper. So anyway, he’s done a good job of, I would say, adapting to the conditions. He’s still got a long way to go. I’m sure he’ll learn a lot more as the season goes along."

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Patriots Talk Podcast: Youth - that means draft success - will have to fuel Pats' reboot

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Patriots Talk Podcast: Youth - that means draft success - will have to fuel Pats' reboot

It's simple, really. If the Patriots are going to avoid staying home again after the Wild Card Round of the playoffs next season and seasons to come, they've got to get younger.

And to get younger, they've got to be more successful in the draft.

In the latest edition of Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast, Curran and Phil Perry focus on the last time New England was sent home this early in the playoffs a decade ago and if there can be lessons learned from that roster reboot in 2010. 

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The biggest issue confronting the Pats this time around is their age, which averages 31.6 years old (a 42-year-old quarterback skews that a little, of course). By comparison, the Super Bowl 54 opponents, the Kansas City Chiefs (26.8) and the San Francisco 49ers (26.6) are considerably younger.

Click here to listen and subscribe to Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast: 

The age factor is why, as Perry pointed out, "the pressure is on for them to hit not only in this 2020 draft, where they do have 12 picks, they have no second-round pick, but 12 shots at the dartboard. Last year, they had 10 [picks] and nine guys are still with the team.

"It's clear they have told themselves, 'We need to get younger. We need to start hitting here if we want to sustain this success.' The draft is the lifeblood of any team."

The 2018 team and its victory in the Super Bowl over the Rams last February worked to hide some of those flaws from recent low-yield draft classes.

"They had a great quarterback when they needed him. They had a Hall of Fame quarterback when they needed him. The defense looked tremendous we know how that story played out," Perry said. 

What kind of draft yield are we talking about to fuel the next generation of Patriots' success?

Curran goes on to rattle off the names from 2008-2012 drafts (Mayo, Slater, Edelman, Vollmer, Butler, Chung, Gronkowski, McCourty) that fueled the second half of the Pats dynasty.

"I have upwards of 30 names from 2008 to 2012 who were contributing players to the Patriots. I'm not even talking a little contributing, but massive contributing...," Curran said.  

There's also a discussion of how the uncertainty surrounding Tom Brady will impact the 2020 draft strategy. Listen and subscribe to Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast on the NBC Sports Boston podcast network.


That 617 Life Podcast: Patriots' ties to a Pats-less Super Bowl

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That 617 Life Podcast: Patriots' ties to a Pats-less Super Bowl

The Patriots may have been missing from the NFL's Championship Sunday, but that didn't stop them from being mentioned and having their former personnel play prominent roles in the AFC and NFC Championship Games.

Whether it was former Pats linebacker Mike Vrabel coaching the Tennessee Titans against the Kansas City Chiefs or former New England quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo helping the San Francisco 49ers beat the Green Bay Packers to reach Super Bowl 54, the Patriots continue to be a talked-about team. 

On the latest edition of the "That 617 Life" podcast, Leroy Irvin, Shanda Foster and Cerrone Battle discussed how the Pats still loomed over the games on Sunday.

"You can not say anything bad about the Patriots because we are always constantly producing talent," Foster said. "I think this is the perfect testament to Bill Belichick."

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Battle said it speaks to the dominance of the Patriots the past two decades that connections to their former players and staff are now all over the league.

"That's what happens when you win," Battle said. "When you win, everybody wants a piece. They want your waterboy. Look at the new head coach of the Giants [Joe Judge, the former Patriots special teams and receivers coach]?... When you're good for 20 years eventually you're going to have your roots all over the league. After years and years of success, I'm not shocked by it."

Irvin and Foster said instead of lamenting a rare NFL Final Four without New England, Pats fans should be grateful.

"I wish Patriot Nation would grow up," Irvin said. "By that I mean I'm tired of seeing on social media people just crying and complaining, 'Oh it's boring without the Patriots.' We've had almost two decades of excellence. We're not there. Get over it."

Said Foster, "I was grateful more than anything. Filled with gratitude. We may never see a run like this again."

In his "Hot Takes and Cold Cuts" segment, Battle says those crowning the Super Bowl 54 opponents as the next dynasties might want to pump the brakes a little. 

"First thing I heard [after the games] is, 'Kansas City they're gonna be around for years and San Francisco they're gonna be around for a long time. They're gonna be contenders forever,' " Battle said. "That was the story all day. 'What is anybody gonna do about these teams next year?' What are they gonna do next year? Not even worry about them. Why? Because this is the Not For Long League. The NFL. Every year, the teams that were hot the year before are never guaranteed to be hot the year after that. Unless you're the Patriots."

The crew also gives their reactions to the new Aaron Hernandez Netflix documentary. It's all in this week's "That 617 Life" podcast on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast network. Click here to listen and subscribe.