Coming off a disappointing 2020 campaign, the New England Patriots are headed into a pivotal offseason: they need to rebuild a roster that went just 7-9 last year and is in need of some major upgrades across the board. Part of those could be bringing back the players scheduled to enter free agency — and there are quite a few of them.
All in all, 26 players that were with New England in one way last season are in need of a new contract. Among them is cornerback and special teamer Justin Bethel, who is an unrestricted free agent and will therefore hit the open market on March 17.
Name: Justin Bethel
Position: Cornerback/Special teamer
Jersey number: 29
Opening day age: 31
Size: 6-foot-0, 200 pounds
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
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 2020 season look like? After already establishing himself as a valuable special teams presence during his first nine games as a Patriot in 2019, Bethel continued to play a major role in New England’s kicking game operation during the 2020 season. Despite again not enjoying the benefits of a full offseason with the club — the Coronavirus pandemic forced teams to move their workouts to a virtual setting — Bethel delivered another impressive performance in the game’s third phase.
The veteran appeared in all 16 of New England’s regular season contests and led the club in special teams playing time. Bethel was on the field for 334 of a possible 397 snaps (84.1%) while seeing action on five units: he played as a gunner on the kickoff and punt coverage teams, was employed on both return squads, and also was used as a flanker on the Patriots’ field goal and extra point blocking units.
In the latter role, Bethel was able to get his hands on one kicking attempt when he blocked an extra point in Week 7 versus the San Francisco 49ers. His most prominent impact, however, came on the kickoff and punt teams. Not only did Bethel help punt returner Gunner Olszewski deliver an All-Pro performance and lead the league in return average — Olszewski gained 17.3 yards per runback in 2020 — he also led the Patriots with nine downed punts and thus contributed to Jake Bailey also earning a first-team All-Pro nod.
Bethel, meanwhile, went unrecognized by the voters despite being a key member of the best special teams unit in football. Another statistic that illustrates this was tackles on kickoff and punt returns: his 13 individual takedowns ranked second in the NFL, only one behind league leader George Odum of the Indianapolis Colts. All in all, therefore, Bethel had an impressive second year with the Patriots.
Free agency preview
What is his contract history? Entering the league as a sixth-round draft pick back in 2012, Bethel signed a standard four-year pact with the Cardinals that was worth a total of $2.2 million. In the final year of that deal, he agreed to a three-year, $15 million extension through 2017. After playing on a one-year $1.8 million contract in Atlanta and a two-year $4 million pact in Baltimore — one that was terminated midway through 2019 — he arrived in New England for two years and $2.9 million. All in all, Bethel’s contractual career earnings are estimated at around $16.5 million by Over The Cap.
Which teams might be in the running? While Bethel saw regular playing time as a cornerback early on in his career, he made his living on special teams the last few seasons. Accordingly, teams in need of cornerback help will likely not look his way. Clubs with weaknesses in the kicking game, however, might be interested in obtaining his services: the Los Angeles Chargers, New York Jets, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings come to mind.
Why should he be expected back? Not only has Bethel played a valuable role on New England’s kicking game operation the last one-and-a-half seasons, he also has shown no signs of slowing down. Even on the wrong side of 30 he is still among the premier special teamers in the NFL and as such a quality piece to have. That is especially true considering Matthew Slater’s uncertain future: the veteran has left his future open, but regardless of his decision this offseason will almost certainly not be with the team beyond 2021.
Why should he be expected to leave? There are few reasons for the Patriots not to try to bring Bethel back, but the market will dictate whether or not that becomes a reality. And with Matthew Slater potentially returning, Joejuan Williams seeing increased special teams action in 2020, and Brandon King a candidate to come back after missing back-to-back seasons, the team might decide it has only so many resources available to compete with others trying to lure the 30-year-old away.
What is his projected free agency outcome? Keeping Bethel in the fold would be smart business from the Patriots’ perspective, if only to guarantee some stability on special teams. He likely will not command top dollar, but would still present solid value given his experience and high-quality play of the last two years. The numbers will have to be figured out, but seeing him return on a two-year pact worth around $4-5 million would be a good outcome for both him and New England.