The New England Patriots should never return a punt for the rest of the season. They should put a player back there to fair catch the ball if it's inside the 20 yard line, and possibly return a complete shank, but under no circumstances should anyone try to field any other ball.
Returning the ball is actually detrimental to the Patriots success.
How can I say that? Well, it's going to become extremely clear that unless your name is Deathwish Danny Amendola, you have no business trying to move the ball forward on a punt.
The Patriots are penalized on 13% of returns
How absurd is that? Six illegal blocks above the waist, three illegal holds. These penalties negate the return and set the Patriots back 10 yards. The average return without a penalty is 11.7 yards. When you include the penalties, the average return is just 6.7 yards. That falls even further to a mere 4.1 yards per return by players other than Danny Amendola (Amendola averages 9.5 yards per return). Are those 4.1 yards worth it when you consider...
Fair catching or not touching the ball has the second best net return yardage on the team
In other words, when the Patriots fair catch, let the other team down the ball, or let it bounce into the end zone for a touchback, the punt yields an average of 39.5 yards. Amendola yields 38.2 yards per punt. All other players combine for a 46.5 yards per punt net, which means the average punt returned is 7 yards worse than letting the ball bounce around, or fair catching it. And this is because...
Sometimes doing nothing is the best decision
Of the Patriots top 20 punt returns by the expected points model (which means how many points the Patriots are expected to score on the ensuing drive due to the punt return), ten were the result of the Patriots letting a bad kick fall out of bounds, or Amendola fair catching a short punt. Six of the returned punts were by Amendola, one was Julian Edelman, one was Chris Harper, and two were Keshawn Martin this past game against the Texans. And that's still not factoring in the fact...
The gosh danged turnovers are absolutely killer
The muffed punt by Martin put the Texans in position for 4.17 expected points on the drive. Another one of Martin's returns resulted in one of those awful penalties to call back the return. When you factor in the penalty, Martin's four returns netted 23 yards and a monstrous turnover.
The average non-Amendola Patriots return would put New England in position for a mere 0.2 expected points per drive more than if the Patriots just fair caught or downed every single punt. This doesn't include the negative costs of turnovers.
The turnovers from Harper and Martin set up the Broncos and Texans with an expected 5.2 points per drive on those muffed punts, which means those muffed punts were 4.6 points worse than the expected field position if the Patriots had just not even tried to return those punts.
Spread those negative points over the 23 non-Amendola punt returns, we find that the average non-Amendola return yields 0.25 expected points fewer than if these players just fair caught the ball.
So whether it's a penalty, or a turnover, the risk is not worth the reward if the returnman is anyone other than Danny Amendola.