FOXBORO, Mass. — Pick out any standout special teams play from this New England Patriots season, and there’s a good chance Brenden Schooler was somehow involved.
The Gunner Olszewski muffed punt back in Week 2? Schooler was there to dive on it. The muff that helped seal the Patriots’ win over the Cleveland Browns in Week 6? He pounced on that one, too (and then hilariously tried to gift the ball to a thoroughly disinterested Bill Belichick). Jonathan Jones’ blocked punt in Sunday’s 26-3 beatdown of the Indianapolis Colts? That one was recovered by, you guessed it, Schooler.
Just nine weeks into his NFL career, the uber-athletic undrafted rookie already is looking like the Patriots’ next great special teamer — and, at least statistically, one of the best in the league.
Schooler’s seven solo special teams tackles are tied for second-most in the NFL, trailing only Tennessee’s Hassan Haskins (eight). He’s registered at least one in each of the Patriots’ last four games and five of their last six.
“Schools is an instinctive kid,” Belichick said Monday morning in a video conference. “He picks things up quickly, and he’s played multiple positions for us in the kicking game, on both the coverage and the return units. So that’s been valuable for us, and it’s been good experiences for him. … He’s a pretty versatile player and a smart kid.”
Playing opposite 10-time Pro Bowler Matthew Slater as a punt gunner, in addition to his various roles on other units, Schooler also is one of just five NFL players with multiple fumble recoveries in the kicking game this season. He’s benefited from the attention Slater commands, Belichick said, but also has begun to draw his own double-teams as opponents attempt to keep him away from their returners.
“I guess that’s a compliment in a way to recognizing his production,” the Patriots head coach said.
The Patriots identified Schooler as a potential special teams asset after a winding amateur career that included stops at four different high schools, three different colleges and two different positions (safety and wide receiver). Slater said the 25-year-old’s emergence has been “huge” amid the dramatic turnover his units have experienced.
After an uncharacteristically sloppy 2021 season on special teams, the Patriots chose not to re-sign Brandon King, Brandon Bolden, Jakob Johnson and Olszewski this offseason, traded Chase Winovich and surprisingly released standout Justin Bethel during final cuts. Then, Cody Davis suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Cleveland game, removing another major kicking-game contributor.
Of New England’s seven most active special teamers last season by snaps played, only Slater and punter Jake Bailey still are on the roster.
“We really needed a guy that would be able to step up and be an impact player,” Slater told NESN.com after Sunday’s game. “(Schooler) has been doing that, and he’s not playing like a rookie, let me tell you that. He’s playing like he’s been doing this for a long time, and we’re really fortunate to have him. He’s giving us a boost right now. … Schools is doing a great job right now, and we’re going to keep riding him.”
Fellow rookies Marcus Jones and DaMarcus Mitchell also are playing large roles on special teams, as is recently signed UDFA Raleigh Webb, who came over from Baltimore after Davis’ injury. Veteran linebackers Jahlani Tavai, Mack Wilson and Raekwon McMillan and safeties Jabrill Peppers and Adrian Phillips have stepped up there, as well.
Overall, the Patriots’ special teams have been erratic this season, but they’ve markedly improved in recent weeks. A big game against the New York Jets in Week 8 shot them from 15th to seventh in Football Outsiders’ special teams DVOA, and they’ll likely climb higher after they blocked a punt, got two explosive returns from Jones and went 4-for-4 on field goals against the Colts.