The oft-neglected unit that is nonetheless a favourite of Belichick, and it shows - many future key Pats players earned their first pay-cheques after starting off in the drudgery of special teams units, and only broke through into the team via the 'ugly swan' unit. But special teams aren't only a nursery of athletic talent; they're also an important part of the team and Belichick, as an ex-special teams coach, knows that better than most. It's no surprise, then, that he spends time, effort and draft picks in an effort to upgrade and maintain the special teams unit at most opportunities.
For this I'll break it down by unit positions and roster personnel, looking for holes or potential changes. Given special teamers are often from the lower reaches of the draft and even Undrafted Free Agency, I can only give a precis about sketching out the holes; most draftees treat special teams skills like their secondary and even tertiary assets, when really they should be bringing them to the fore when fighting for roster slots. That makes rookies destined for special teams surprisingly hard to spot from pre-draft scouting without oodles of game tape focused on little-known and otherwise average players.
So, an analysis of the 2009 Pats special teamers, after the jump!
Sam Aiken played punt-covering upback (the guy who stands between the line of scrimmage and the punter, and blocks punt-rushers) on all but one play. That one play? Where the Jets' Eric Smith charged down a punt for a Brad Smith recovery and touchdown. That says quite a lot of Aiken's special teams play; he was a rock off the field - voted Special Teams Captain by his new team-mates at the beginning of the season - but he was also a rock on it. He also managed to get into the open field and make 9 special teams tackles, 6 of which were solo, and he contributed at times on all four special teams units.
Change? No - Aiken's signed through 2011 after an October '09 extension, and well-deserved it was.
The Pats had a bit of a rotation through the gunner positions; Matthew Slater was a rock on one side (as well as contributing in all 4 special teams units), and individually racked up 6 tackles, 5 of which were solo. On the other side of the field, two players in particular played a lot of time at gunner - Bret Lockett was claimed off injury waivers from the Browns and immediately found himself on the starting roster as a special teamer. He notched up 7 special teams tackles, of which 5 were solo, before being placed on the injury reserve list in December after 10 games. The other player to chip in significantly was Kyle Arrington, who was signed to the practice squad in late September. He was promoted to the squad of 53 in early November and played agains the 'Phins in week 9. He was a revelation on special teams; despite only being on the roster for 9 games (of which he played 8), he racked up a team-high 18 tackles, 14 of which were solo. Not only that, but he made a number of big plays towards the end of the season, none more important than the forced fumble and recovery in the playoffs loss to the Ravens - Arrington single-handedly sparked the only real hint of a comeback the Pats had in the entire game.
Changes? Arrington has definitely earned his stripes, so I'd not only expect him to be on the roster at the end of training camp, but also to be a core special teamer. He's dynamic and a game-changer, and very quick to boot. In fact, between his speed and Slater's, I have a feeling that may be why Hoodie has given punter Hanson the boot - while Belichick favours hang-time over depth in his punters up until now, he currently has two potentially game-changing gunners and may want a deeper-booted punter to give them an opportunity to make plays.
Kicker / Kick Off Specialist
Stephen Gostkowski. The only placekicker the Pats carried into 2009 training camp, because he's the only one they needed. On sheer stats, it was a good year - 26-for-31 on Field Goals (83.9% average); 47-for-47 on PATs; and with an outstanding kickoff average of 67.8 yards per kickoff. He also chipped in on memorable plays - he recovered a fumble in the game against the Bills, diving under linebackers and safeties to scoop up the loose ball to set up what turned into a gamewinning play. In other words, he was nothing short of great. Any changes? Not likely, no.
Chris Hanson. While Hanson did beat out Tom Malone in training camp, he was completely underwhelming during the season. He managed an average punting distance of 39.7, which is fairly poor, and put 18 punts within the opposition 20, 5 inside the 10 yard line, and put 5 through the back of the end zone for touchbacks - decidedly average. In his favour, he did manage the lowest average for yardage on returned punts, but that's mainly because a grandmother in a zimmer-frame could run from the line of scrimmage to where Hanson's punt landed before a punt-returner could run it out.
Changes? Yes. Given the sudden upgrade at gunner, I'd expect serious competition in the punter position. The Pats recently signed Australian Aussie Rules player David King; he's likely to have a good punt on him and decent fundamentals, but is otherwise an outside chance given his lack of depth in the American Football game. I'd fully expect the Pats to bring in a draftee or Undrafted Free Agent to compete for the spot; before the Pats signed King, they were seriously scouting rookie punters. Given they've usually had punting competition in training camp, expect more of the same.
Two guys of note here. One is second-year player Jake Ingram. If you forgot his name, that's a good thing - he wasn't mentioned because he didn't screw up. Given his position is all about consistency and reliability, those are ticks in his boxes. The second is Rob Ninkovich, who although he didn't play at LS, has done so in the past. If it comes down to keeping Ninkovich or replacing him with someone similar, the fact Ninkovich can fill in at a specialist position may well mean his roster spot is safe.
Not so much a 'position' as a roster spot dedicated to core special teams player(s) because they chip in on every special teams unit. Of the 2009 roster, the main players who were retained are Eric Alexander and practice squad players Thomas Williams, Bruce Davis. Signed recently for a similar role is ex-Jet Marques Murrell, who I'd expect to compete with the previous three for a similar job. Alexander was a useful special teams contributor, racking up 12 tackles, of which 8 were solo. Davis has no stats in the NFL, while Williams has the slightly odd statistic of one total tackle, and one fumble forced - a pretty good strike-rate, but low overall production. Marques Murrell is somewhat more productive; 14 tackles overall and 2 fumbles forced, perhaps indicating why he was signed by the Pats in the offseason.
Changes? Perhaps - rookie LBs can always contribute to special teams, so I'd expect the Pats to hold on to all four special teams specialists until the post-draft roster cutdowns. The ones who perform will stay, the rest may find themselves squeezed out by promising rookies from roster spots. The Pats are in the enviable position of having a few proven special teamers, from which they can shed players as necessary. It's better to have several to cut rather than none and be scrabbling around trying to find some.
Laurence Maroney managed the most kick returns, sending back 13 returns for 279 yards at an average of 21.5 - a fair way below the top teams average for KRs. He did manage a 52 yard return, suggesting he was trusted to manage the load but fairly hit-and-miss production-wise. After Maroney, Matthew Slater handled the next most - 13 returns at a pretty impressive 24.5 average, netting 269 yards. Perhaps more impressively, his top run was only 35 yards, meaning he was supremely consistent with very few outriders. He also passed the eye test, often being only one half-block or almost-broken tackle away from cracking a massive return. If he can improve on that, he'll be a real weapon, and he also did it whilst alternating between returner and lead blocker for the other guys. Of the others, Julian Edelman returned a few kicks, taking back 11 returns for 241 yards at a so-so 21.9 average. Like Slater, though, he was fairly consistent - only a long of 32 meaning his average wasn't bolstered by outriders. Kevin Faulk was as reliable as ever, taking only 6 KRs but getting a 24 average out of them. Finally, of note was the performance of Brandon Tate, who although he only got limited opportunites (4) he made the most of them, racking up 106 yards at a 26.5 average. However, that average is 'real' - his longest run was only 34 yards, meaning he was particularly consistent.
Changes? Perhaps. Tate showed a lot of promise, but his fragility will be a concern. Slater is big and durable, and may be called upon to return more kicks, but he's done most of his work not out of the KR position, but the one that stands 10 feet in front of the traditional returner - he blocks for the returner, and only returns the kick himself if it's short. In other words, he's not a pure KR guy but one who chips in occasionally on underkicked kickoffs. Edelman showed some talent, but was below average and the Pats may want to limit his hits if he has to fill in full-time for Welker for at least part of the season. Maroney was patchy but fairly productive, although his average ought to be higher. The Pats, if they address CB, S, WR or HB, may well specifically target a guy who can return kicks, solely because of the somewhat thin lineup at the moment. Then again, they might be happy enough with the status quo to let it slide.
Wes Welker is the obvious choice here, as he returned 27 punts for a pretty good 12.5 average. However, the concern is that Welker may be out for a significant part of the season, as well as the sheer fact that playing as punt returner means he gets hit 27 more times a season than would otherwise be the case. Julian Edelman filled in pretty ably as Welker's replacement post-injury, returning 6 punts for 61 yards, as well as scoring a pre-season punt return Touchdown. The ever-reliable Kevin Faulk chipped in, too - 5 returns for 31 yards at only 6.2 yards per return, although it should be born in mind that Faulk usually handled the red zone punts, where reliability of hands and not fumbling is more important than getting return yards.
Changes? Most likely, yes. Welker's likely to be out, and Edelman would be expected to pick up the slack from Welker's absence in the passing game. So unless the Pats want Edelman getting all the underneath passing and all the punt return duties, I'd expect them to get someone who can return punts in the draft or post-draft free agency. It just seems too much for a second-year WR to do, especially when you bear in mind that up until last year, Edelman had been behind center as a QB. I'd be highly surprised if the Pats didn't get a punt-returning WR (or HB) in the upcoming draft.