How Will Patriots Fill These Three Under-The-Radar Holes In Week 1?

'I'm not afraid to put any of those guys back there'

by

September 5

You’ve surely heard about the New England Patriots’ efforts to plug important defensive holes at linebacker and cornerback this offseason. And the offensive voids that opened up at both guard spots and third-down back.

But with the regular-season opener now less than a week away, it remains unclear how they plan to replace a couple of key departures in the kicking game.

Speaking with reporters Monday morning, special teams coordinator Cam Achord was mum on who the Patriots’ punt and kick returners will be when they take the field against the Miami Dolphins this Sunday. New England lost its primary return man from the last two seasons when Gunner Olszewski signed with Pittsburgh in free agency.

“We’ve got multiple guys we’ve been working back there deep, and they’ve all done a good job,” Achord said in a video conference. “When you look at that position, it’s the quickness, running with the ball, able to make a guy miss — specifically a punt returner; it’s a little bit different than maybe a kick returner. … That’s more straight downhill, strong runners, whereas the punt returner is being able to make the guy miss in space.”

Achord mentioned rookie Marcus Jones, Myles Bryant, Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers as candidates for those roles.

“They’ve all done a really good job for us,” he said. “We’re kind of going through that (process) this week, and then we’ll see come gameday. But they’ve all done a really good job, and I’m not afraid to put any of those guys back there.”

Jones and Bryant have looked like the top two contenders for the punt return job, with the latter taking first reps in that position for much of the summer. In New England’s preseason finale against the Las Vegas Raiders, Jones was the Patriots’ top punt returner, and rookie running back Pierre Strong started at kick returner.

Troy Brown, who coaches the Patriots’ receivers and return men, may have tipped the Patriots’ hand when asked about Jones, saying he’s interested to see how the third-round draft pick performs during the regular season. Jones was arguably the best returner in college football over the past few years, tying an NCAA record with nine career punt/kick return touchdowns.

“Marcus has done well,” Brown said Monday. “He’s shown an ability to run with the ball after he’s caught it. He’s been fielding the ball pretty well. We’ll see what he does when the real games start here in another week or so, but for the most part, he’s been pretty consistent back there.”

Bryant also showed promise as a punt returner this preseason despite not playing the position since high school. Peppers, an ex-New York Giant who was limited in camp as he recovered from an ACL tear, offers a wealth of experience, returning 83 punts and 34 kickoffs in his NFL career. Dugger was a dangerous collegiate returner at Division-II Lenoir-Rhyne, but his NFL stat sheet includes just two kickoff returns and zero punt returns.

In addition to the Patriots’ return man questions, their surprise decision to cut core special teamer Justin Bethel created another vacancy. Bethel, who quickly signed with the Dolphins, is one of the NFL’s top punt gunners, playing opposite fellow standout Matthew Slater for the past 2 1/2 seasons.

Achord wouldn’t reveal who they intend to plug into Bethel’s spot but indicated it likely will be someone with high-end speed.

“We’ve got some really good guys out there that can run,” the coach said. “That’s the No. 1 thing at the gunner position: they have to be able to run. You look across the league and the speeds — you want to see if a guy’s fast or not, look out there on the perimeter when the team’s punting. That’s going to be at least one of their top three fastest players, usually, are going to be out there on the edge. You do the GPS thing, and those guys are the ones running 21, 22 miles per hour consistently out there on the perimeter.”

Blazing-fast rookie receiver Tyquan Thornton saw frequent work as a gunner in training camp and the preseason, but he’ll be unavailable until at least Week 5 as he recovers from a fractured clavicle. Jonathan Jones also is one of the Patriots’ speediest players and was a gunner earlier in this career, but New England may be reluctant to use him there now that he’s one of the team’s starting outside cornerbacks.

Wideout Lil’Jordan Humphrey made a terrific play as a punt gunner during the preseason. He’s currently on the practice squad but could be elevated or promoted to the 53-man roster, as the Patriots currently have one open spot following Thornton’s move to injured reserve. Humphrey wouldn’t check the speed box, though. His glacial 4.75-second 40-yard dash 2019 combine ranked in the first percentile among receivers.

Undrafted rookie Brenden Schooler is an excellent athlete who could replace Bethel, but he did not rep with the gunners during training camp.

Achord added that change-of-direction ability and play strength also are important for gunners.

“We’ve got several different guys we’re working right now out there,” he said, “and we’ll see on Sunday who that’s going to be.”

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