Patriots

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: Will Belichick keep special teams group together?

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: Will Belichick keep special teams group together?

Editor's Note: Phil Perry will be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots' position groups between now and when the NFL's 2020 free agency period begins, spotlighting the current roster and what names might be available on the market.

Bill Belichick likes to reference Rick Gosselin's special teams rankings when it comes to overall effectiveness in the kicking game, so let's start there.

Gosselin -- longtime Dallas Morning News columnist and currently of the Talk of Fame Network -- placed the Patriots third in the NFL in his special-teams rankings for 2019. Not bad. Under Belichick, the Patriots annually rank near the top of Gosselin's list, which incorporates 22 kicking-game categories and assigns teams points according to their standing in each.

Matthew Slater put together another All-Pro season to help this unit's cause. Jake Bailey, New England's big-legged punter, was impressive. And Nick Folk stepped in for an injured Stephen Gostkowski and acquitted himself nicely.

But can Belichick and his front office keep this group together? They have some key free agents -- including the special teams captain -- about to hit the market.

PLAYER-BY-PLAYER LOWDOWN

Matthew Slater: About as decorated as a specialist could possibly be -- he went to his eighth Pro Bowl and was named a First-Team All-Pro for the fifth time after the 2019 season -- Slater remains on top of his game heading into his 35-year-old season. He plans to play in 2020, but he'll be a free-agent in mid-March unless he and the Patriots agree to a contract before then. He's a critical piece to the team, not only because of his work covering kicks, but because of his role as a longtime captain and the voice of the locker room.

Nate Ebner: Another key cog to the overall operation in the kicking game -- he's the personal protector on the punt team and plays on all of New England's core units -- Ebner is also set to hit free agency next month. Ebner, 31, just finished his eighth season with the Patriots.

Stephen Gostkowski: Gostkowski got through just four games last season before landing on injured reserve with a season-ending injury. The 36-year-old is under contract for one more season, carrying a cap hit of $5.3 million. Releasing him would save the Patriots $3.9 million, though that would seem unlikely so long as Gostkowski is healthy and the Patriots don't invest in another kicker in this year's draft. Is it time for Belichick to think about the future at this position?

Nick Folk: In eight games with the Patriots, filling in for Gostkowski, Folk made 16 of 19 field goals and all 13 extra points he attempted. It was an admirable effort, considering he'd last played competitively in the defunct Alliance of American Football and had to step in for the franchise's leader in points scored in the middle of a title-defense season. He's a free agent this offseason.

Jake Bailey: Checking in with Pro Football Focus' third-best punter grade as a rookie, Bailey was one of the surprise performers on the Patriots roster. Only one punter (Tennessee's Brett Kern) had more punts land inside the 20, and only five punters had a better return percentage than Bailey's 34.6 percent. He also put together an impressive resume as a kickoff specialist, filling in for Gostkowski for nine games. Among kickers with at least 60 kickoffs, Bailey posted the fifth-best average starting field position following kicks (23.5 yard line).

Justin Bethel: Picked up mid-season when the Ravens let him go in order to preserve a compensatory draft pick, Bethel gave the Patriots -- along with Slater -- what might've been the best pair of punt gunners in the league. Adding to his value was the fact that his presence allowed Jonathan Jones, a talented gunner in his own right, to focus on his growing defensive duties. Bethel is under contract for one more season at a $2 million cap hit.

Joe Cardona: Under contract through 2022, Cardona will be the team's long-snapper for the foreseeable future. 

Gunner Olszewski: The undrafted rookie from Division II Bemidji State landed on the active roster to start the season thanks to his ability to return punts, and he did so with reckless abandon through eight games before landing on IR. He returned 20 punts for an average of 9.0 yards per return and should be in line to compete for the same role in 2020.

Brandon King: Prior to the start of the season, King -- a core special-teamer who practices with linebackers -- tore his quad and was forced to miss the entirety of the year. He's under contract for the next two years and could be back as a key cog in the kicking game should he make a full recovery. 

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES

Antonio Hamilton: The Giants flew under the radar as a special teams force in 2019 -- getting a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown against the Patriots didn't help in that regard -- but despite that major gaffe, they came in seventh on Gosselin's rankings this year. Part of the reason for their top-end performance? Their gunners. If the Patriots feel as though they can't keep Slater -- though that'd be hard to envision -- then perhaps they'd invest in the 27-year-old Hamilton, who is coming off a productive season in New York. His teammate and fellow gunner Cody Core, 25, is a free agent as well.

Another kicking-game specialist from the Giants, Michael Thomas, 31, who made the Pro Bowl last year, is also a free agent this offseason. One would think former Patriots special teams coach and now Giants head coach Joe Judge would want to hold onto these guys if he can. If not? One might make for a good fit in New England.

Tyler Matakevich: If it's a bigger body the Patriots are after in the kicking game, they could go with this linebacker from the Steelers. The 6-foot-1, 235-pounder is thicker than Ebner -- if Ebner is someone the Patriots need to replace -- but he was a tackling machine last season in the kicking game. According to PFF, only one player had more special teams tackles in 2019 (New Orleans' JT Gray).

Miles Killebrew, a linebacker-safety hybrid from the Lions, is a little lighter option at 222 pounds and may provide the Patriots the kind of athleticism they're looking for on their special teams units. 

Tom Brady, Gisele Bündchen thank medical professionals on World Health Day

Tom Brady, Gisele Bündchen thank medical professionals on World Health Day

Although Tom Brady is no longer a New England Patriot, you'll definitely appreciate the Instagram message he and wife Gisele Bündchen shared with medical professionals on World Health Day. 

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With the coronavirus outbreak sweeping the world, health care workers have put themselves in danger to help the community and save lives. Brady and Bündchen couldn't thank them enough for their hard work. Even their children included some notes of encouragement and thanks. 

The pandemic has impacted daily life everywhere, including sports. With MLB, MLS, the NHL and NBA seasons on hold due to the coronavirus, there's also no guarantee the NFL season will begin on time. Even the 2020 NFL Draft is being conducted in an online format because the risk of infection is just too high. 

Brady also took the time to share a heartfelt goodbye video to Patriots fans on Monday, too. So, while some jilted Pats fans may say "who cares?" to Brady thanking medical professionals during the COVID-19 outbreak, take the time to remember that in the past 20 years he left an imprint on New England that will last a lifetime. 

2016 NFL Draft: Joe Thuney the last man standing from Patriots 2016 class

2016 NFL Draft: Joe Thuney the last man standing from Patriots 2016 class

The Patriots had Richard Seymour, Matt Light, Damien Woody and Tom Brady in 2001. They had Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Sebastian Vollmer and Matthew Slater in 2010. 

Under Bill Belichick, as the Patriots went from version 0.0 to 1.0 to 2.0, there was a young core in place that served as their pulse. As they went, the team went. Championships followed. 

The outlook for version 3.0 is hazy. The young core is thin and rife with question marks after the Patriots went about maximizing Brady's last few seasons in New England. Who makes up the core now? How many core pieces are there?

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We're examining each of the Patriots' past four drafts to see how they got here, on the brink of a new era for the longest-running dynasty in modern NFL history, with an uncertain road ahead.

We'll start in 2016, a year in which the Patriots did not have a first-round pick as a result of Deflategate. (They were also docked a fourth-rounder in the 2017 draft.) 

Cyrus Jones, CB, Alabama (Round 2, Pick 60)

Jones was the definition of a Prototypical Patriot. He was a versatile defensive back who'd played in Nick Saban's defense. He'd be a perfect fit in Belichick's secondary, where roles could change from game to game, series to series and snap to snap. He had a ridiculous three-cone time. He was also touted as the top punt-returner in that year's class.

Fumbles and confidence issues plagued him as a rookie, though. He never became a regular part of the Patriots defense. In the preseason finale the following season, he tore his ACL and was placed on injured reserve. He's bounced around the league — including a brief return to New England — since then, last landing on the Broncos injured reserve list in the fall. He is one of several second-round defensive backs (Jordan Richards, Ras-I Dowling, Terrence Wheatley, Duke Dawson) who have provided little in the way of a return for the Patriots defense.

Who they could’ve had: Yannick Ngakoue, EDGE, Maryland (Round 2, Pick 69)

Joe Thuney, G, North Carolina State (Round 3, Pick 78)

Home-run pick. Thuney was a stellar athlete as a lineman, and he played all along the Wolfpack offensive line during his career there. He was whip-smart. There should've been no doubt in anyone's mind this would be the pick when it came up. He'd end up the long-term replacement for Logan Mankins and, like Mankins, embodied toughness along Dante Scarnecchia's offensive line.

Thuney was a Day 1 starter and hasn't missed a game in his career. He's signed his franchise tag tender for 2020 and remains a candidate to be extended to a) keep him around for years to come and b) knock down his almost $15 million cap hit. In a rare statement after tagging Thuney, the Patriots said they hoped to use the tag as a way to buy themselves time to work out an extension, adding that Thuney "has been a model teammate and an essential element to our success."

Who they could’ve had: Austin Hooper, TE, Stanford (Round 3, Pick 81)

Jacoby Brissett, QB, North Carolina State (Round 3, Pick 91)

Brissett had every box on the list of intangibles checked off when he came off the board in 2016. Leader of men. Someone who drove to road games when he had to sit out the year at N.C. State due to transfer rules. (His college career began at Florida and NCAA rules prohibited him from traveling with the team during his year away from the field.) He showed promise as a rookie, having enough of a clue to help the Patriots win a game during Brady's suspension.

But going into his second training camp, his throws were scattershot. He'd hardly improved, it seemed, and he wasn't getting any reps behind Brady or Jimmy Garoppolo. He was dealt to the Colts in exchange for Phillip Dorsett. Brissett now appears to be a long-term, competent backup — a role he'll serve in Indy this year behind Philip Rivers.

Who they could’ve had: Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State (Round 4, Pick 135)

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Vincent Valentine, DL, Nebraska (Round 3, Pick 96)

We continue now our trudge through names who no longer find themselves on the Patriots roster. Valentine was a classic big-bodied defensive tackle at 6-foot-4, 329 pounds. He just wasn't particularly effective, and he was rarely used behind Alan Branch and Malcom Brown. He played just over 300 snaps as a rookie, spent 2017 on injured reserve, and was gone by the start of 2018.

Who they could’ve had: D.J. Reader, DL, Clemson (Round 5, Pick 166)

Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia (Round 4, Pick 112)

Mitchell walked away from the Patriots locker room and toward the direction of his team's Super Bowl party a Boston sports cult hero. He was the kid with the injury history who slipped in the draft, fell to New England, and turned himself into a dependable option for Brady in the wildest comeback in the history of the sport's championship game. It was his final game.

Knee injuries wouldn't allow him to continue the following year. He was waived in 2018. He's now retired. Super Bowl LI alone will make him one of New England's most beloved fourth-round picks of all time, and as the Patriots look to deepen their receiver corps, it's hard not to wonder how drastically Mitchell might've altered the picture there had he been healthy.

Who they could’ve had: Robby Anderson, WR, Temple (Undrafted)

Kamu Grugier-Hill, LB, Eastern Illinois (Round 6, Pick 208)

Grugier-Hill was a far cry from the massive humans the Patriots typically like to draft at linebacker. "Built like a safety, plays like a linebacker." He was drafted as a potential special teams standout, but he couldn't crack the roster with Slater, Nate Ebner, Brandon King, Jordan Richards, Barkevious Mingo, Jonathan Freeny and 2016 undrafted rookie Jonathan Jones holding down spots. Grugier-Hill was claimed by the Eagles and became the special teams stalwart he was expected to be. Coming off an injury that landed him on IR late last season, he signed a one-year deal to work with some familiar faces down in Miami.

Who they could’ve had: Cory Littleton, LB, Washington (Undrafted)

Elandon Roberts, LB, Houston (Round 6, Pick 214)

As an undersized run-first linebacker and special teams contributor, it's remarkable Roberts has had as much staying power as he has. Four years with the Patriots, and now he's on to Miami to reunite with Brian Flores on a new contract. He'll never be mistaken as one of Belichick's most important defenders, but he started 25 games combined in 2017 and 2018, and the coaching staff relied on him to bring a measure of toughness to the second level of the Patriots defense.

Roberts was named a captain last season, and though he was not a defensive staple, he took on the role of fullback when the team's top two options at that position hit IR. He didn't want the role, but he accepted it, and he'll now forever be able to tell his family he caught a touchdown pass from Tom Brady

Who they could’ve had: Tyler Matakevich, LB, Temple (Round 7, Pick 246)

Ted Karras, OL, Illinois (Round 6, Pick 221)

After Thuney, there's not a player on this list who had a more sizable season-long impact than the one Karras had in 2019. To get that kind of dependability out of a backup offensive lineman in the sixth round is legitimate value. Could Karras execute everything the Patriots might normally execute with David Andrews in the lineup? No. But he helped hold things together well enough for Tom Brady to survive the season and win 12 games in the process. Starting every game at center, Karras allowed just 14 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus. Like Roberts and Grugier-Hill, he signed a contract to become a member of the Dolphins this offseason. 

Who they could’ve had: Matt Skura, OL, Duke (Undrafted)

Devin Lucien, WR, Arizona State (Round 7, Pick 225)

A last-round dice-roll on a player from a program Belichick respects (he has a good relationship with former ASU coach Todd Graham), with good athleticism (4.49-second 40-yard dash), Lucien wasn't expected to make the roster when he was drafted. He spent his first season as a pro on the practice squad, then bounced around to five different teams before returning to New England briefly. In the last two seasons, he's spent time with the AAF's Arizona Hotshots and Memphis Express. He's currently rostered by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL. 

Who they could’ve had: Geronimo Allison, WR, Illinois (Undrafted)

Trades

Belichick dealt Chandler Jones to Arizona for the No. 61 pick and guard Jonathan Cooper before the draft, then sent that pick to New Orleans for No. 78 and No. 112. Those became Thuney and Mitchell. ... Patriots sent a fourth-rounder to Chicago for Martellus Bennett and a sixth-rounder prior to the draft...They sent a fifth to Houston for receiver Keshawn Martin and a sixth...A sixth was traded to Chicago for Jon Bostic.

The Patriots have one player remaining from the draft class on their roster for 2020: Thuney. Their undrafted class that season included corner Jonathan Jones and running back D.J. Foster. Jones and Thuney are among the top players on the team — along with center David Andrews and guard Shaq Mason, both rookies in 2015 — under 28 years old.