With the third phase of voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September 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 bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with cornerback and special teamer Justin Bethel.
Name: Justin Bethel
Position: Cornerback/Special teamer
Jersey number: 29
Opening day age: 31
Size: 6-foot-0, 200 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 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 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 399 snaps (83.7%) 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. Whenever the club needed somebody to fill a role on special teams, Bethel was usually among the first to be called into action.
Bethel was able to get his hands on one kicking attempt, blocking an extra point in a Week 7 loss 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 and helped them fill the void created by Brandon Bolden’s Covid-19 opt-out.
What is his projected role? Given that he was on the field for just five defensive snaps during his first one-and-a-half seasons in New England, his projected role heading into 2021 appears to be rather obvious. Bethel will again 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 allows the team to keep him as an emergency option.
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 soon-to-be 31-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. Bethel also showed his versatility in the game’s third phase in the past: not only has he been employed on five units, he was also moved through various spots within each one of them.
What is his salary cap situation? The Patriots and Bethel agreed to a three-year contract worth up to $6 million. As far as the 2021 season is concerned, Bethel will hit the team’s books with a salary cap hit of $1.93 million: his salary ($1.2 million) and signing bonus proration ($333,333) are fully guaranteed, while his in-game roster bonuses ($400,000) are considered likely to be earned. New England could only save money on their cap by trading him this year, but that will not happen.
What is his roster outlook? Bethel is a lock to make the team’s 53-man roster this year for multiple reasons: his contract situation; his experience and past performance on special teams; New England’s longer-term kicking game outlook with Matthew Slater potentially entering the final year of his legendary career. Add it all up, and Bethel becomes not just a guarantee to be on the team this year but also an integral member of the club in both 2021 and possibly beyond.