The Patriots' head coach was asked Wednesday in which areas BenJarvus Green-Ellis has improved most. The running back has gone from virtually unknown, undrafted free agent to practice squad worker to part-time contributor to 1,000-yard back in the span of just three seasons, and his 136 rushing yards were absolutely critical to the Patriots' win over the Jets on Sunday. You might think Belichick would be most impressed with Green-Ellis' speed, or power, or elusiveness, or field vision or blitz pickup or some combination of those traits of a running back.
As is generally the case when you try to predict Belichick, you'd be wrong.
"Special teams," Belichick said matter-of-factly.
Belichick said Green-Ellis didn't work much on special teams in college at Mississippi, and that lack of experience was one of the main reasons he didn't make the Patriots initially in 2008. His improvement on special teams, though, earned him his chance.
"He improved in that area significantly," Belichick said. "I think he does a real good job for us in the return game and in the coverage game when we've asked him to do it. That's actually led to him getting more opportunities offensively.
"His improvement in the kicking game got him on the roster, it got him to the game, it got him opportunities to run the ball and that got him more playing time on offense," Belichick added. "I know that probably doesn't make any sense but that's really the way it works. You're not the starting running back or you're not a starting whatever if you can't play in the kicking game, then it's hard to get those players active on the game day. If you do play in the kicking game that leads to more opportunities offensively or defensively."
The concept, of course, is not foreign by any means. An NFL team can't be comprised solely of first- second- and third-round draft picks, and it's often those lower-round picks and undrafted players who make up a good chunk of the roster.
On the Patriots' roster, linebackers Rob Ninkovich and Dane Fletcher know that reality.
"Especially for an undrafted guy, I think [special teams is] about the only way to really prove that you can make it on the field and that you can perform," Fletcher, a second-year undrafted player who's now a key cog in the Pats' linebacking corps, said. "You got to prove that you can perform on special teams … and once you get a role on special teams, then they might or might not test you as far as whether or not you can do it on offense or defense."
One player still in that stage of development is Matthew Slater, a fifth-round pick in '08. He saw the field almost exclusively for his first two seasons on kickoffs, punts and kick returns. He got a shot this year in Week 1, when Tom Brady found him for a 46-yard bomb on the Patriots' third offensive play of the season. He's yet to get the chance to make another big play on offense, but he continues to work hard on special teams, with Green-Ellis serving as living proof that good things come to those who wait.
"People probably don't know this, but he's probably one of our better special teams players," Slater said of Green-Ellis. "The experience that he has, the way he works, he's a professional. It's evident out there on the field. I think you have a lot of guys around that are unselfish, and we're just worried about one thing, and that's winning.
"Guys put their pride aside, and Benny doesn't have any problems doing the dirty work, so to speak, covering kicks or blocking or whatever it may be," Slater added. "He's a very versatile player, and he's the type of guy you enjoy playing with."
The case of Green-Ellis, specifically, is interesting. He joined the team in 2008, two years after Belichick spent a first-round pick to draft Laurence Maroney. The at-times explosive runner was given a heavy workload from the get-go, though he did little to earn his playing time. He slowly worked his way off the team (and out of the league), but that process was dragged out for an extra year or two, given how much time and effort the organization had invested in him.
Things were different for Green-Ellis, to say the least. Despite back-to-back seasons of 1,000 yards at Mississippi, Green-Ellis was passed over 252 times in the 2008 draft. The Patriots signed him a week later but waived him at the end of training camp. He signed back with the team on the practice squad before getting his first shot in the NFL in Week 6 against the Chargers, when he had one catch for 9 yards. He was given more and more reps on offense for the next few weeks, leading up to his 105-yard performance against the Bills in Week 10. Clearly, Green-Ellis earned his spot, as he's on pace for consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, this time in the NFL rather than SEC.
Still, years later, with Green-Ellis an established NFL back, Belichick remains most impressed with that work on special teams. The coach made it clear, though, that playing time on offense or defense isn't a gift that is given based solely on effort on special teams.
"It's not rewarding them," Belichick said. "They earn it."