A look at the New England Patriots' 2018 free agency class shows that the unit with the most top players about to hit the open market was special teams. Of the 14 unrestricted free agents to be, eight held major roles in the kicking game the previous year. A ninth player, Brandon King, was furthermore scheduled to become a restricted free agent last Wednesday.
It was clearly an important time for the future of New England's kicking game operation, particularly in regards to kickoff and punt coverage. However, the Patriots were able to keep most of their key pieces in place with yesterday's signing of team captain Matthew Slater the latest special teams domino to fall this offseason: New England and the veteran agreed on a two-year deal that will keep him around until after the 2019 season.
With Slater being kept in the fold, the Patriots will now be able to field similar coverage units to the ones that helped the team secure the best average defensive starting field position in the league last year: Brandon Bolden, Rex Burkhead and Nate Ebner also all re-signed with the team, while Brandon King was signed to a two-year contract extension on March 8. The importance of these signings cannot be underestimated.
After all, King was tied for the team-lead with 10 special teams tackles last season, Slater was tied for third (9 tackles) and Bolden and Ebner tied for fifth (8 tackles). Due to the re-signings of the four players, only one of the team's top six special teams tacklers of last year will not be around: Johnson Bademosi, who also registered 10 takedowns, signed a two-year, $6.25 million contract with the Houston Texans.
Of course, replacing Bademosi is not the only question special teams coach Joe Judge faces this offseason. Besides needing a new assistant after Ray Ventrone left to join the Indianapolis Colts, Judge's units also have to hope that Jonathan Jones (9 special teams tackles) and the above-mentioned Ebner return to full strength after suffering season-ending knee injuries last year.
Furthermore, New England has to find new starters at punt and kick returner: Danny Amendola and Dion Lewis left via free agency to join the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans, respectively. While the punt return job is up in the air, the kick return position was already filled with one of the most explosive returnmen in the NFL: The Patriots' trade for Cordarrelle Patterson gives them a big-play threat in the kickoff game.
New England still has to fill holes elsewhere on the roster – most notably at left tackle – but so far during the offseason, the special teams unit has been taken care of. Considering how often head coach Bill Belichick preaches the idea of “complementary football”, this has to be seen as a success for the team.