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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