Before the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off later this month in Indianapolis, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the New England Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2019, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town.
Next up: the specialists.
2019 in one word: Chaotic
After nearly a quarter-century of enviable stability at the kicker position, the bleep hit the fan for the Patriots this season. Longtime mainstay Stephen Gostkowski missed five kicks in four games before landing on injured reserve. Mike Nugent replaced him but was cut a month later after four misses in four games. Then came Nick Folk, who was temporarily released after undergoing an emergency appendectomy on Thanksgiving. After a one-game cameo by Kai Forbath, Folk returned and actually fared well down the stretch, going 9-for-10 on field goals (with one blocked) and 10-for-10 on extra points over New England’s final five games. That’s four kickers in one season — one more than the Patriots utilized during a 23-year span from 1996 to 2018 (Gostkowski, Adam Vinatieri and Shayne Graham).
2020 outlook: It’s unclear who will be kicking for the Patriots when the 2020 season opens in September. Gostkowski has one year remaining on his contract, but he’s 36 and coming off hip surgery. Releasing the three-time Super Bowl champ this offseason would free up nearly $3.5 million in salary cap space. Even if Gostkowski stays, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Patriots add a young kicker through the draft or free agency. The 35-year-old Folk will be an unrestricted free agent.
2019 in one word: Future
Moving on from Ryan Allen proved to be a smart move for New England. Fifth-round draft pick Jake Bailey easily beat out Allen in training camp and went on to enjoy a strong rookie season, earning two AFC Special Teams Player of the Week selections. Bailey also handled kickoffs for the Patriots after Gostkowski went down.
2020 outlook: The big-legged Stanford product will be New England’s punter for the foreseeable future.
2019 in one word: Meh
After losing All-Pro Cordarrelle Patterson in free agency last spring, the Patriots handed off kick return duties to running back Brandon Bolden, who hadn’t returned a kick or punt since college. Bolden made smart decisions and took care of the ball, but his 22.4 yards-per-return average ranked third-to-last among qualified NFL kick returners.
2020 outlook: A dangerous kick returner is more of a luxury than a requirement in the modern NFL, but this is a spot the Patriots could look to improve this offseason.
2019 in one word: Tease
Former Division II cornerback/return man Gunner Olszewski surprised everyone by making the Patriots’ roster as an undrafted rookie, and he proved to be one of the NFL’s most efficient punt returners during the first half of the season, ranking sixth in the league in average yards per runback (9.0). Olszewski was placed on injured reserve after Week 8, however, and his replacement, Mohamed Sanu, never looked fully comfortable returning punts — unsurprising considering the veteran wideout returned exactly zero during his first seven pro seasons. Sanu also suffered an ankle injury on a punt return that sidelined him for one game and limited him in at least two others.
2020 outlook: Olszewski, who garnered favorable comparisons to a young Julian Edelman this season, will have a chance to compete for this spot again in spring practice and training camp. But he won’t be guaranteed a roster spot as the Patriots look for ways to bolster their receiving corps.
2019 in one word: Resurgent
Following a 2018 season that featured some uncharacteristically sloppy kick and punt coverage, the Patriots beefed up their special teams by bringing back Bolden and adding Terrence Brooks to a group that already featured Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner. Then, they scooped up three-time Pro Bowler Justin Bethel in October, giving them two of the NFL’s premier punt gunners. Bethel and Slater combined for three fumble recoveries, and the Patriots blocked a franchise-record four punts, returning two of them for touchdowns. New England ranked third in Rick Gosselin’s annual year-end special teams rankings after finishing tied for 10th in 2018.
2020 outlook: Slater and Ebner both are set to hit free agency next month. Slater, a Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro this season at age 34, said he does not plan on retiring and hopes to re-sign with New England. The Patriots also have yet to name a successor to special teams coordinator Joe Judge, who took over as head coach of the New York Giants last month. They have a strong internal candidate in Cameron Achord, who worked under Judge as the team’s assistant special teams coach for the last two seasons.
Thumbnail photo via Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports Images