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2021 NFL free agency: Patriots re-sign special teamer Justin Bethel to a three-year contract

Related: Patriots re-sign Cam Newton to a one-year contract

NFL: OCT 18 Broncos at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While the New England Patriots’ decision to re-sign quarterback Cam Newton to a one-year contract will steal most of the headlines on Friday, the team will reportedly also retain a core member of its kicking game operation: as first reported by Jim McBride of the Boston Globe, cornerback Justin Bethel will return to the Patriots.

Bethel will sign a three-year, $6 million pact with the team as ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss later added.

Bethel’s NFL career started when the Arizona Cardinals selected him with 177th overall 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.

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, he 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, 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.

Since joining the Patriots, Bethel has continuing to play some impressive football in the game’s third phase — the 2020 season was no exception.

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.

Given his recent performance and prominent role in the kicking game, re-signing Bethel is a good move for the Patriots.


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