Jake Bailey

Core of the issue: Who makes up young Patriots nucleus for next reboot?

Core of the issue: Who makes up young Patriots nucleus for next reboot?

Editor's Note: For the first time since the 2010 offseason, the Patriots are looking at a "full" offseason, without a trip at least as far as the AFC Championship Game. Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry are detailing the challenges facing the team going forward. Read Tom's column here and click here to listen to the latest episode of Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast.

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The football-watching world was bombarded with this particular nugget not long after the Titans scampered off the field at Gillette Stadium having moved onto the Divisional Round: It was the first time the Patriots had been eliminated as early as the Wild Card Round since 2009.

It's a remarkable note, highlighting just how dominant this decade of football has been in New England. It also serves as a window into the franchise's history and therefore could be instructive as we try to determine how exactly the Patriots will try to bounce back as they did a decade ago. 

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Two seasons after the Patriots lost that Wild Card game to Baltimore, they were back in the Super Bowl. And that Super Bowl run set off a stretch of eight consecutive seasons when Bill Belichick's team made it at least as far as the AFC Championship Game.

Looking back at how the Patriots rebounded from that particular early playoff exit in 2009, though quick, it clearly wasn't easy. Given the way the current roster is constructed, this particular bounce-back could be even more challenging.

WHY THE PRESSURE'S ON

There is no precise formula, of course, when it comes to building a consistent championship contender. But there is no doubt that for many years, each spring, the Patriots were able to replenish their team with key pieces brought aboard from the college ranks who helped set up the team for long-term success.

That 2009 iteration of the Patriots featured a roster in transition. Pillars of the organization — Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison — had moved on prior to the season. But there were young players, acquired in the draft, starting to assert themselves as serious contributors and leaders in their own right. And with each draft, the number of those young core players grew.

By the time the Patriots were back in the Super Bowl in 2011, they had young talents who'd been developed at One Patriot Place serving as foundational pieces, including 2008 picks Jerod Mayo and Matthew Slater, 2009 selections Sebastian Vollmer, Patrick Chung and Julian Edelman, and 2010 home-run picks Devin McCourty and Rob Gronkowski. Even the rookie class of 2011 had a say in the team getting to Super Bowl XLIV with first-round pick Nate Solder starting 13 games on the offensive line.

Despite going on an unprecedented run of AFC Championship Games and Super Bowl appearances — meaning Bill Belichick was generally picking near the bottom of the first round — the Patriots continued to draft well to keep their annual championship aspirations alive. Shane Vereen and Marcus Cannon, from Solder's class, ended up playing important roles in championships. Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones were bullseyes in the 2012 first round. Without a first-rounder in 2013, the Patriots still landed Jamie Collins, Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan, who all contributed to title runs. In 2014, taken in the fourth round, James White ended up a key piece to the team's future.

Since then, the steady stream of cornerstone pieces arriving in the draft has slowed.

The Patriots hit on both Trey Flowers and Shaq Mason in the fourth round of the 2015 draft, but only Mason remains on the team. The 2016 class, which saw a first-rounder wiped away due to Deflategate, is no longer represented on the Patriots roster as Joe Thuney and others are set to hit free agency. The 2017 draft class featured just four players and didn't produce a consistent starter. 

Using a draft-in-bulk approach in 2018, with nine players selected, the Patriots landed Isaiah Wynn in the first round. He looks like a quality left tackle, but he's missed three-quarters of his first two seasons due to injury. Sony Michel and Ja'Whaun Bentley are the other contributors remaining from that class. The effectiveness of the 2019 draft class is largely to be determined.

Compare that young nucleus built to help the Patriots rebound after 2009 to this one. The 2008-11 draft classes accounted for four Pro Bowls, three first-team All-Pros and two second-team All-Pros through the 2011 season. The 2015-2018 classes did not account for any such honors through the 2018 season. Thuney was named a second-team All-Pro for his 2019 performance.

Even just looking at the roster without tallying up awards, the number of recently-drafted Patriots who've become core pieces and stuck is eye-opening. The team has a greater number of starting-caliber players under contract from the 2009 draft class (Chung and Edelman) than they do from the 2015 (Mason), 2016 and 2017 classes combined.

Belichick and his front-office staff have seemingly willingly gone with an older roster in recent years, perhaps in an effort to capitalize on their championship window as Brady neared the end of his career. Still, that approach — unafraid to trade picks or execute pick-swap deals for proven veterans — meant a smaller investment in rookie contracts than most other teams.

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In 2018, according to OverTheCap.com, only one team had fewer cap dollars committed to players on rookie contracts than the Patriots. That year, only two teams had a lower percentage of their active roster devoted to players on rookie deals (33 players). It worked out, clearly. They won a Super Bowl.

Last year, it was more of the same in terms of their rookie-contract investment. They entered the regular season with the oldest 53-man roster in football and got out to a record-setting pace with the oldest starting defense in the NFL. No team in the league had fewer players on rookie contracts (24) and no team committed fewer dollars to rookie deals.

Even with veterans such as Tom Brady, Devin McCourty, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins not currently counting against the 2020 roster, the Patriots are still slated to be a decidedly veteran team next season. No team has fewer players on rookie contracts at the moment (28), and no roster has a smaller percentage of players on rookie contracts making up their roster (52.8 percent). The next closest team in terms of the percentage of rostered players on rookie deals is the Saints (60.4 percent). 

The draft has breathed life into the Patriots dynasty for the better part of the past two decades. Building successful teams without drafted-and-developed contributors is possible — that 2018 roster is a good example of how a couple of low-yield draft classes doesn't have to extinguish a team's title hopes — and college players may be more difficult to successfully evaluate than ever before. But without a greater number of cost-effective impact additions from the drafted ranks, the next Patriots reboot could be Belichick's toughest yet. 

As one NFL executive familiar with the situation put it last offseason, leaning on free-agent signings and pick-for-player trades isn't the most sustainable plan of attack. If the Patriots don't start to make more of their draft-day dice rolls, they could find themselves in a real roster-building quagmire relatively quickly.

WHY THERE'S REASON FOR REBOOT OPTIMISM

Some of those roster-composition figures for the 2020 season can change. And fast.

The Patriots traded this year's second-round pick to the Falcons for Mohamed Sanu, but they still have one first-rounder, three thirds (including two projected compensatory picks), a fourth, four sixths (two compensatory picks) and three sevenths. That's a dozen selections to try to add to the nine players remaining on the roster from the 2019 draft class to try to jump-start a youth movement.

And it's not as though they need each of those picks to hit in order for a wave of young talent to land this fall. In 2010, the Patriots had more established talent on the offensive side of the ball than they do at the moment — Brady was at an MVP level, Wes Welker was one of the best receivers in the league, and the offensive line was loaded with Pro Bowl-caliber players — but adding Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at tight end took them to another level. 

A hit or two, combined with better health throughout the course of the season, could have the Patriots looking like a different offense after 2019 was one of their least-efficient seasons on that side of the ball in years. 

Plus, there's the "redshirt" factor. Belichick has openly discussed how players coming off of quiet rookie seasons can turn into critical parts. There's no shortage of those types on the roster who — either because of injury or because they were blocked by veterans ahead of them on the depth chart — have untapped potential. 

Outside of rookie punter Jake Bailey, who quickly established himself as one of the best at his position in 2019, most of that class has a chance to take the Year 2 leap in 2020.

N'Keal Harry, Joejuan Williams, Damien Harris, Chase Winovich and Byron Cowart all got their feet wet with some game action and plenty of practice reps. Harry, who missed half the season due to injury, could benefit immensely from more time on the fields behind Gillette Stadium. Likewise, offensive linemen Yodny Cajuste and Hjalte Froholdt — both of whom missed the season with injuries — will have a chance to earn roles this offseason.

Another point in New England's favor as it searches to reload on young talent: It has seen some of its best players come from the undrafted free agent ranks.

They've found gems in David Andrews (2015), Jonathan Jones (2016), Adam Butler (2017) and J.C. Jackson (2018) to provide the team with some of its best young talent. By their nature, undrafted rookies are gambles. But they're low-cost gambles, and another double-digit undrafted free agent class could yield a player or two upon whom the Patriots could rely. That's been their history. 

WHY THE QUARTERBACK DOMINO DETERMINES THE COURSE

How the Patriots handle 2020 could end up looking like 2010: Add a handful of capable young draft picks to a roster with established talent and a few promising young pros, and continue to build around Tom Brady. 

But is there any chance that the reboot Belichick directed in 2000 and 2001 ends up being the closer comparison? Might he make a change at the game's most important position, roll with a more cost-effective option there, and rely on a veteran-laden defense while reshaping the team to his liking?

The current iteration of the roster is unique. It's a different team and a different time. Neither 2001 nor 2010 provides perfect blueprints on how to approach this offseason. The quarterback decision, though, could dictate which way Belichick proceeds. 

If Brady ends up back in New England at a dollar figure that pays him near the top-third of quarterbacks in the NFL, then that could make it difficult to surround him with the veteran talent that would likely best accentuate his skill set. Would surrounding Brady with young players for a second consecutive season get the best out of the 43-year-old? And would that be in line with Belichick's credo of "what's best for the football team?"

If Brady ends up back in New England at a lower dollar figure that would allow him to be surrounded by a free-agent signing or two who'd make him more comfortable — perhaps trading picks for established veterans as well — that might be "what's best for the football team" in 2020.

But what about the seasons beyond? If there is an inevitable reboot afoot, would signing Brady to that type of deal simply postpone an inevitable roster reconstruction? And might it complicate the process with cap hits pushed down the road to be dealt with in later years?

If Brady ends up elsewhere, giving way to either second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham or a low-cost veteran, there will be growing pains. Still, in theory, it would provide the team with more roster and salary-cap flexibility. As it stands right now, thanks in part to pacts signed with Antonio Brown and Michael Bennett, only three teams have more dead money on their 2020 books than the Patriots, per OverTheCap.com.

Should Brady find himself in a different uniform next season, that dead-money number will jump another $13.5 million. Re-signing Brady prior to the start of the league year will avoid that kind of cap-hit acceleration — only $6.75M hits the cap — but depending on a new deal's structure, that decision may simply postpone the inevitable.

Even Belichick would acknowledge, whatever happens with Brady isn't entirely up to him. Any contract negotiation is a two-way street, as he put it in his year-end press conference. But it'd behoove the Patriots to have an idea of how they'd like to proceed with Brady as soon as possible. That way, they could use the legal tampering period in mid-March to surround Brady with veteran pieces if he's going to be back. If not, they could sit tight, save — they're in the middle of the pack of the NFL in terms of cap space — and hope they can thrive despite undergoing a roster renaissance.

Either way, the contributions they receive from their most recent draft classes will matter. The Patriots couldn't reboot when Belichick arrived in the early aughts without quality drafts. The same was true 10 years ago after an unceremonious Wild Card Round exit. 

Compared to other seasons this decade — when they've made it at least as far as the AFC Championship Game — they have a few weeks more time to prepare for draft weekend. They have ammo. They just need to hit. 

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 punter Jake Bailey wins AFC Special Teams Player of the Week after great performance

Patriots punter Jake Bailey wins AFC Special Teams Player of the Week after great performance

New England Patriots punter Jake Bailey might be the most impressive rookie from the team's 2019 NFL Draft class. 

The NFL announced Wednesday that Bailey is the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week winner for Week 12. He also won this award after the Patriots' Week 3 win over the New York Jets.

Bailey put on a punting clinic in New England's 17-10 win over the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday. The Stanford product had six punts inside the 20-yard line and five punts that went over 50 yards. His punts helped the Patriots win the field position battle and forced the Eagles to go on long scoring drives. Bailey's kicks were among the primary factors in the Patriots holding the Eagles scoreless through the final three quarters.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick praised Bailey's ability to pin the Eagles deep in their own territory amid the difficult kicking conditions in Philly.

“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. 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," Belichick told reporters after Sunday's victory. "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.

"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, but between the holding, the kickoffs and the punting in various conditions and certainly situational football, which came up today. You know, the end-of-the-game punts and backed-up punts and plus 50-punts and the kickoffs and so forth. There were a lot of situations. But he’s a great kid. 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. I wish he could have recovered that fumble, but he’s been great for us.”

Belichick doesn't often give that level of praise to a rookie, but it's certainly warranted in Bailey's case. He's been a tremendous asset to the Patriots not only as a punter, but also as the holder on field goals and player handling kickoff duties. That's the kind of versatility Belichick values so much.

Phil Perry: Jake Bailey, special teams excel in Week 12 report card>>>

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