Joe Cardona

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. 

Jake Bailey sounds like the choice for kickoffs following Stephen Gostkowski's injury

Jake Bailey sounds like the choice for kickoffs following Stephen Gostkowski's injury

FOXBORO -- The Patriots had more than one job to replace when they put Stephen Gostkowski on injured reserve earlier this week. They handled the field-goal and extra-point work by giving veteran Mike Nugent the place-kicker gig.

The kickoff duties, meanwhile, sound like they could be going to rookie punter Jake Bailey based on what long-snapper Joe Cardona told reporters Thursday.

No surprise there if Bailey's the choice. The Stanford product -- who had Bill Belichick gushing about his directional punting and hang time earlier this week -- didn't hide the fact that he'd love to kick off after he was drafted in the fifth round back in the spring.

"I would love to be able to do that," he said. "It's been a part of my game ever since I've been at Stanford. It's something I would like to continue. A lot of NFL teams really value a punter that can also kick off because it kind of helps out the kicker if he's getting old or something or doesn't have a strong kickoff leg, so whatever happens, I'll be super happy with it."

Bailey was a kickoff specialist to start his career at Stanford, punting only situationally. But even as his punting duties increased, he remained the kickoff choice for coach David Shaw. Bailey had 60 touchbacks on 72 kickoffs last year (83 percent). In 2017, he had 58 of 83 kicks go for touchbacks (70 percent), playing primarily in kicker-friendly Pac-12 locales.

The only thing in Bailey's way was Gostkowski. At 35 years old, Gostkowski wanted to keep kicking off this season, but he acknowledged it was harder on his body than kicking field goals.

"I would say you always practice field goals a lot more than kickoffs," he said. "I would equate kicking off to like hitting on the driving range. We work on things like hitting it short, hitting it in the corner, hitting it high. But at the end of the day, I'm really just swinging as hard as I can. Field goals. are so much more attention to detail that goes into it. Plus, if a kicker were to get injured, nine times out of 10 it's on a kickoff.

"It's one of those things, you gotta kick off enough to where you're comfortable with your rhythm and your steps. But you could go out there and kick field goals all day. You kick too many kickoffs, it'll tire you out a little bit more so you have to watch out how much you actually do kickoff-wise. I know a guy like Thomas Morstead who used to do it, he was like, 'I could punt all day, but kickoffs you just can't do all day.' It's one of those things. It's all effort. Balls to the wall. Then field goal is more like a smooth stroke."

Gostkowski took every kick off and appeared to get injured -- or aggravate an injury -- after making a tackle during a kickoff in Buffalo last weekend. The Patriots, according to Football Outsiders, are 26th in the NFL in opponent starting field position following kickoffs. They allow opposing offenses to begin drives following kickoffs, on average, at the 26.19 yard line.

That's obviously not where the Patriots would like to be, and it helps explain why they went out and signed some kick-coverage help this week when they brought back Jordan Richards. Their No. 26 ranking at this point in time is actually an uptick from 2018, though, when they were last in the league in opponent starting field position following kickoffs (27.11 yard line on average). It was a drastic drop from their No. 2 ranking in 2017 and No. 3 ranking in 2016.

It sounds like now with Gostkowski out, it'll be Bailey's right leg that'll have the opportunity to try to help that ranking climb back to a place where Belichick and special teams coach Joe Judge would like it.

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Patriots' Joe Cardona promoted to lieutenant in United States Navy

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USA TODAY Sports Photo

Patriots' Joe Cardona promoted to lieutenant in United States Navy

Joe Cardona is already a two-time Super Bowl winner with the Patriots, but on Thursday the 2015 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy received a very special honor, as he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in the Navy.

The timing of the promotion was especially poignant, with it coming on the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

"Congratulations to Lieutenant Joe Cardona on his promotion," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose father used to coach football at the Naval Academy. "Obviously a day to remember our World War II veterans on D-Day. The 75th anniversary, that's kind of a big one for us. I want to recognize all the things that they did."

"It’s pretty emotional, you know? You see someone who takes the oath like that and raises his hand, and it’s a big commitment Joe’s made," echoed Tom Brady. "I think Joe does it very proudly and he does a great job educating a lot of us on what it means to him. I think we all appreciate that. So, we see the work that he does here for us, but also the work that he does for our country.

"I’ve talked to Joe a lot over the years about what his roles and responsibility are and I think everyone’s proud of his accomplishments. As proud as you are to win a Super Bowl ring, to advance in that part of his career is pretty amazing. So, to do both is really a great thing for him personally and nice to be able to celebrate and congratulate with him."

For Cardona, it's just the first of two special honors he'll receive Thursday, as he will join his teammates to get his second Suepr Bowl ring on Thursday night.

Cardona, who has never missed a game in his four-year NFL career, has been juggling his football duties along with his Naval responsibilities at the Naval Preparatory Academy in Rhode Island. 

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