Patriots

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

Patriots

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.