The New England Patriots have six core special teams players right now, not including kickers Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen, and long snapper Mean Joe Cardona.
The six players with 60+% of the team’s special teams snaps through three weeks are LB Barkevious Mingo (80%), S Nate Ebner (76%), CB Jonathan Jones (75%), ATH Brandon King (66%), WR Matthew Slater (65%), and RB Brandon Bolden (65%).
Special teams have been a huge part of the Patriots early season success, whether by pinning the Cardinals deep in their own territory or by forcing fumbles against the Texans. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has acknowledged the core special teams players and their influence on the game.
“I mean that's what their job is and that's a great thing when they can do it then really the other people on the team don't have to cover,” Belichick said, highlighting Slater’s and Jones’ work as gunners. “Again, part of that is going back to just team football. I mean they do a good job. Slater and Jones both do a good job out there. They work well off of each other, which there's a lot of coordination with those two positions relative to each other and also the rest of the coverage...If the gunners can get down there and make the play before the rest of the interior people get down there then that's great. That saves you a lot of - I'd say those guys - a lot of coverage responsibility.
“We know that's not always going to happen although we hope it happens as much as possible, but then those guys have to cover the field in their lanes and do their job. But yeah, Jonathan and Matthew have done an excellent job for us in that and kickoff coverage and also in the punt return game. So, Jonathan has been a really good addition to that core group of special teams players.”
Jones was kept over other talented cornerbacks Cre’von LeBlanc and Darryl Roberts and he has rewarded the team with a high level of play on special teams.
What is unique about this year’s group of special teams players is just how dedicated they are to the roles. Of those six players, Slater has seen the most time on offense or defense (20 snaps). It’s rare for the Patriots to have players so completely focused on special teams.
In 2015, only two players exceeded the 60% bar over the course of the season (Ebner and Slater) while King (54%), Bolden (53%), S Jordan Richards (51%), and LB Jonathan Freeny (51%) cracked the 50% mark. Bolden, Richards, and Freeny were all more involved than the six players in 2016.
The 2014 Patriots had three players over the 60% mark (Tavon Wilson, Slater, Bolden), as did the 2013 Patriots (rookie LB Jamie Collins, LB Chris White, Ebner). The 2012 Patriots only had two players over 60% (LB Niko Koutouvides, Ebner).
The season is long and it remains to be seen if these special teams players can keep up their rate of play, but I don’t see why not. Bolden, Slater, and King are all primary special teams players and only injury should limit their contributions.
The Patriots have their core six players on punts and kickoffs, plus Gostkowski, Allen, and Cardona, giving the Patriots their first special teams “starting lineup” with players entirely focused on the third phase of the game.
It’s been paying off.