Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with a member of New England’s special teams units.
Name: Justin Bethel
Position: Cornerback/Special teamer
Jersey number: 29
Opening day age: 30
Size: 6-foot-0, 200 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2020 (2021 UFA)
What is his experience? Bethel’s career in the NFL started when the Arizona Cardinals selected him with the 177th overall pick in the 2012 draft. Despite his draft status and being moved from safety to cornerback, the rookie was able to make the team’s 53-man roster thanks to his contributions in the kicking game — contributions that would serve as the foundation of a successful career in Arizona: between 2012 and 2017, Bethel appeared in a combined 99 games for the team and was named first-team All-Pro twice.
Along the way, the Presbyterian product also carved out increased playing time on the defensive side of the ball. From 2015 through 2017, he served as the Cardinals’ number three cornerback and registered four interceptions — with three of them being returned for touchdowns — as well as three fumble recoveries. Despite his success as a cornerback, however, Bethel did not return to the Cardinals as a free agent in 2018. Instead, he spent time with the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens before arriving in New England in 2019.
What did his 2019 season look like? After his one-year deal with the Falcons expired, Bethel decided to join the Ravens on a two-year free agency pact worth a total of $4 million. He went on to appear in the team’s first seven games, playing almost exclusively in the kicking game: he saw 160 snaps on special teams compared to only 14 at the cornerback position. Bethel registered five combined kick coverage tackles as well as a fumble recovery in this role, and also allowed one of two passes thrown his way to be completed.
Nevertheless, the Ravens decided to part ways with their offseason acquisition in late October. The move was not made because of issues with Bethel’s performance in his new environment, however, but rather because of the compensatory draft picks formula: releasing the veteran ensured that Baltimore would gain an additional fourth-round selection in the 2020 draft, a motive for the move that was acknowledged by Ravens head coach John Harbaugh at the time.
That said, his release did pave the way for the Patriots to pick him up: just one day after being let go, Bethel signed a two-year, $2.93 million contract in New England. The following Sunday, he was already on the field in a Patriots uniform, playing 22 of a possible 32 snaps as a member of the team’s kick coverage and field goal/extra point blocking units — a sign of things to come: the former sixth-round draft pick established himself as a core special teamer shortly after his arrival in Foxborough.
As such, Bethel appeared in all nine remaining regular season games and the Patriots’ lone playoff contest and was on the field for 230 of a possible 283 kicking game snaps over that time (81.3%): he played on both kickoff and punt teams, and also saw regular action on field goal and extra point blocking units. He also proved himself a consistent playmaker by not just registering six tackles — tied for fourth most on the team despite not being on the roster for seven games — as well as two fumble recoveries.
What is his projected role? Given that he was on the field for just five defensive snaps during his first half-season in New England, his projected role heading into 2020 appears to be rather clear: Bethel, who underwent shoulder surgery earlier this offseason, will be a special teams presence first and foremost and serve as a potent running mate alongside fellow veteran Matthew Slater. While he could provide depth on defense as well, the Patriots’ impressive cornerback depth makes him just the sixth option at the moment.
What is his special teams value? Bethel is one of the most experienced and successful special teamers in the NFL, and as such provides tremendous value for the Patriots. He can successfully play on punt and kickoff coverage as a gunner and front-line rusher, respectively, and also fill various roles on punt and kickoff return units. As noted above, the 29-year-old also has experience playing as a flanker/edge rusher on blocking units.
Does he have positional versatility? During his final three seasons in Arizona, Bethel saw extensive playing time at his listed position of cornerback. He did play on the perimeter most of the time, but also regularly moved to the slot as well. In this sense, he does have versatility beyond the kicking game. Of course, however, his special teams prowess is where his primary value lies, and Bethel did show his versatility in the game’s third phase as well in the past: not only has he been employed on five units, he also moved through various spots within each one of them.
What is his salary cap situation? As part of the two-year contract he signed in New England last October, Bethel will hit the team’s books with a salary cap number of $2 million in 2020. Given that his pact carries no remaining guarantees, the Patriots could theoretically release him without taking on any dead money — all while creating net savings of around $1.25 million (his current cap hit minus another player taking his spot in the top-51 list).
What is his roster outlook? Despite the success he enjoyed after arriving in New England last year, Bethel is not guaranteed a spot on the club’s roster in 2020. After all, the Patriots have plenty of kicking game talent under contract competing for roles on the team beyond roster lock Matthew Slater — from returning veterans such as Brandon King and Brandon Bolden, to offseason acquisitions Adrian Phillips and Cody Davis, to the group of drafted and undrafted rookies. Bethel is in a good position as one of the better kick coverage players in football, but he still needs to earn his job.