With free agency and the draft firmly in the rear-view mirror and organized team activities underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 85 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early 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 men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with third-year punter Jake Bailey.
Name: Jake Bailey
Position: Punter/Holder/Kickoff specialist
Jersey number: 7
Opening day age: 25
Size: 6-foot-2, 205 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 UFA)
What is his experience? Before arriving in the NFL as a fifth-round selection in the 2019 NFL draft, Bailey saw considerable action during his four-year career at Stanford. Playing in 52 games as a Cardinal, he attempted 185 punts which sailed for 8,105 yards — setting a school record in career punting average with 43.8 yards per kick. Bailey additionally kicked the ball off 291 times. His success at the college level prompted the Patriots to use the 163rd overall pick three years ago on him.
In New England, Bailey quickly earned the team’s punter job due to strong performances in training camp and preseason. Holding a triple role as punter, holder and kickoff specialist, Bailey has appeared in a combined 51 regular season and playoff games. Punting 193 times for a gross average of 46.7 yards per kick and a net of 41.8, he established himself as one of the best punters in football. He also attempted a total of 235 kickoffs resulting in 124 touchbacks and an opponent return average of 20.8 yards.
Bailey was both named first-team All-Pro and voted to the Pro Bowl following his 2020 campaign.
What did his 2021 season look like? Coming off the best season of his young career and one of the best punting campaigns in recent memory, Bailey entered training camp as the Patriots’ undisputed punter, holder and kickoff specialist. Despite his heavy workload, the former fifth-round draft pick had another solid season from an individual perspective. However, New England’s punt coverage team as a whole struggled mightily in 2021 which in turn also hurt Bailey from a statistical perspective.
In total, the 24-year-old attempted a combined 52 punts during his 17 regular season appearances and lone playoff game. The ball traveled 2,458 yards off his right foot for a gross average of 47.3 yards per kick; 14 of those kicks ended either as touchbacks (6) or sailed out of bounds (7), 14 were fairly caught, and six downed by the Patriots’ own coverage unit. Only 18 were actually run back by the team’s opponents for an average of 10.7 yards per return — only slightly lower than the Patriots’ own average of 11.3.
That 10.7-yard return average was a clear step back compared to 2020, when New England surrendered only 5.9 yards per return. That was not the only issue for the Patriots’ punt coverage unit, though: the group also surrendered a league-high three blocked punts — the first three such plays of Bailey’s career: the club failed to properly protect its punter against the New Orleans Saints (Week 3), the Dallas Cowboys (Week 6), and the Indianapolis Colts (Week 15). The latter of those three blocks was returned for a touchdown.
Bailey is hardly to blame for any of these issues. That said, his 2021 campaign as a whole did present a slight step back from a statistical perspective outside of the aforementioned return average and blocked kicks. He had a worse gross punt average (47.3 vs. 48.7), touchback rate (11.5% vs. 9.1%) and 50-plus-yard kick rate (30.8% vs. 50.9%); his net, which is highly dependent on the coverage team, dropped from 45.6 the year before to just 39.0 last season; his fair catch rate decreased as well (26.9% vs. 32.7%).
Just like he did the last two years, Bailey also filled the role as New England’s kickoff specialist again. Despite Nick Folk taking over a few kickoffs throughout the year — possibly the result of Bailey dealing with a right knee injury midway through the season — he was the main man at the position. He ended up kicking the ball off a total of 95 times during the regular season and playoffs: 51 of those kickoffs were returned for an average of 20.9 yards, while 41 ended as touchbacks and three sailed out of bounds.
Finally, Bailey also served as New England’s holder on place kicking attempts. Nick Folk’s combined field goal and extra point accuracy of 90.7 percent (78 of 86) is proof of a job well done and that the punter and long snapper Joe Cardona were on the same page throughout the season.
What is his projected role? Just like he did ever since entering the NFL in 2019, Bailey will serve as punter and holder in 2021; it also seems likely that he will again be the Patriots’ primary kickoff specialist as well. There is a realistic chance that the specialist trio of Bailey, place kicker Nick Folk and long snapper Joe Cardona stays in tact for a third straight season. If so, Bailey’s responsibilities will not change drastically if at all.
Does he have positional versatility? From a pure special teams perspective, Bailey does indeed offer some positional versatility: he has proven that he is capable of performing at an All-Pro level as a punter, but also that he can work as a kickoff specialist as well. On top of it all, he also is a steady presence in the field goal and extra point game due to his role as a holder. Outside of the game’s third phase, however, his value is non-existent.
What is his special teams value? Bailey’s value to the Patriots lies exclusively in the kicking game, and this will not change in 2022. While it remains to be seen whether or not he will be used outside of his punter, holder and projected kickoff duties, any other employment does not appear to be in the cards. That said, he did register one 17-yard run during his career at Stanford and might be asked to carry or even throw the ball on the occasional trick play.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Bailey carries a salary cap number of $4.06 million — the 16th highest on the team and second highest among all punters in the league. The NFL’s performance-based escalators are to blame for his cap number jumping from 0.4 percent of New England’s cap a year ago to 1.9 percent in 2022. The deal itself is pretty straight-forward: Bailey’s non-guaranteed salary of $3.99 million is joined by a fully-guaranteed signing bonus proration of $72,520.
How safe is his roster spot? Bailey was undisputed as the Patriots’ punter the last two seasons, but he will be facing some competition this summer. The team, after all, brought Jake Julien aboard as a rookie free agent. The incumbent will be the clear favorite to emerge victoriously, but Julien has a clear advantage from a contractual perspective. If he can perform just well enough relative to Bailey and his financial situation, New England might just make a decision in favor of the youngster.
One-sentence projection: Bailey will keep his job as the Patriots’ punter despite the added competition, and might even sign a contract extension with the team before the start of the regular season.