As the NFL calendar officially flips to 2021, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the New England Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2020, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town.
Last up: the specialists.
K Roberto Aguayo
P Jake Bailey
LS Joe Cardona
PR Gunner Olszewski
K Justin Rohrwasser
ST Matthew Slater
IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
ST Justin Bethel
ST Cody Davis
K Nick Folk
KR Donte Moncrief
2020 SEASON REVIEW
The Patriots had serious issues offensively and defensively this past season, but Bill Belichick’s club was lights-out in the kicking game.
New England ranked first in both Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings and Football Outsiders’ special teams DVOA. The Patriots led the league in punt return average, ranked seventh in punt return average against and ranked 11th in kick return average, both for and against.
Two of New England’s three Pro Bowlers — Bailey, Slater and cornerback Stephon Gilmore — were special teamers, and Bailey and Olszewski both were first-team All-Pros. (Slater earned second-team honors.)
Bailey — our pick for the Patriots’ 2020 Most Valuable Player — paced all NFL punters in net punting average (45.6 yards) and percentage of punts downed inside the 20 (56.36 percent). His 48.7-yard gross punting average was fourth-best in the league and the best in Patriots history.
“I think Jake is as good a punter as there is in the National Football League with some of the things that he’s able to do,” Slater said in December.
Olszewski led the NFL in both punt return average and total punt return yards. His 17.3 yards-per-return average set a new franchise record and was the second-best ever by a punt returner with at least 20 runbacks. The undrafted second-year pro gained at least 12 yards on 11 of his 20 returns, including three of 50-plus yards and one 70-yard touchdown. He also had another score called back for a penalty.
Folk didn’t receive any year-end honors, but he enjoyed arguably the best season of his career at age 36. After re-signing midway through training camp, he missed his first two field goals but made his final 26, including last-second game-winners from 50 and 51 yards. His 92.9 percent field-goal success rate was eighth-best in the NFL.
Slater, Bethel and Davis formed an elite kick/punt coverage trio. Davis blocked a field goal that Devin McCourty returned for a touchdown.
TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
Bailey, Olszewski and Cardona all are under contract for the upcoming season, so the Patriots are set at those spots. Kicker, though, is a question mark.
Rohrwasser, the first kicker selected in the 2020 NFL Draft (fifth round), spent the entire season on the practice squad after struggling mightily in training camp. Aguayo, one of the most infamous draft busts in recent memory, hasn’t kicked in a game since 2016 and had been out of football for more than two years before he joined New England’s practice squad in December.
The Patriots signed both to future contracts after the season, but they can’t bank on either being their No. 1 option come September. Re-signing Folk, who said he has no intention of retiring, and holding a three-way camp competition would be a smart move.
New England also needs to reevaluate the kick returner position with Moncrief — who took over for Olszewski in late November despite having minimal NFL returning experience — headed for free agency. Running back J.J. Taylor and safety Kyle Dugger are two in-house options.
Longtime kicking game stalwart Brandon Bolden said he plans to return after opting out of the 2020 season, but the Patriots will need to decide whether to re-sign impending free agents Bethel and Davis.
And Slater, a nine-time Pro Bowler and integral locker room leader, has yet to announce whether he plans to play in 2021 or retire. He’ll be 36 in September.