With the offseason workout program in the rear-view mirror, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 87 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 veteran special teamer Justin Bethel.
Name: Justin Bethel
Position: Special teamer/Cornerback
Jersey number: 29
Opening day age: 32
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 status and a move 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 and beyond: between 2012 and 2017, Bethel appeared in 99 games for the team and was named first-team All-Pro twice.
Along the way, the Presbyterian product also increased his 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 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 appeared in a combined 44 regular season and playoff games. While he received only limited playing time on the defensive side of the field, he served as a core member of New England’s kicking game units ever since his arrival. In fact, he is leading the team in special teams tackles since getting picked up by the club in late October 2019: Bethel has registered a combined 28 tackles; he additionally recovered a pair of fumbles and forced another.
What did his 2021 season look like? Bethel was originally scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency in mid-March 2021, but the Patriots apparently did not want to take any chances. Instead of allowing him to test free agency, they re-signed him the week before the market was set to open: Bethel stayed put for three more years at a total cost of $6 million. The first of those seasons already turned into a mostly successful one for the veteran, who again served primarily as a special teamer for New England.
Bethel saw action in all 17 of the Patriots’ regular season games plus their wild card playoff loss against the Buffalo Bills. Being used on five kicking game units, he ranked second on the team with a playing time share of 79.7 percent: he was on the field for 370 of a possible 464 snaps. Bethel was able to make the most out of his opportunities, and was among the better and more productive special teamers in all of football. He registered eight tackles and also forced a fumble in Week 6 versus the Dallas Cowboys.
His special teams contributions were again prominent, but Bethel also was given increased playing time on the defensive side of the ball. After notching just six such snaps over his first two seasons in New England combined, the team asked him to take the field 54 times — primarily as an outside cornerback — during his 2021 campaign (of 1,135; 4.8%). Virtually all of his action came in late-game situations and blowout scenarios, however, including a season-high 13 snaps during the aforementioned playoff game in Buffalo.
As a defender, Bethel finished the season with four tackles. He furthermore allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete six of eight passes into his coverage area, resulting in a combined gain of 86 yards. Those numbers are not necessarily impressive, but the fact remains that Bethel is on the roster to play in the kicking game while being merely an emergency option on the defensive side of the ball. And even though New England had some issues on special teams in 2021, Bethel himself had a solid individual season.
What is his projected role? Even though he saw more defensive action in 2021 than he did the previous three years combined, Bethel should not suddenly be expected to seriously start competing for prominent snaps at cornerback. He offers experience on the perimeter as an emergency option, but his focus will first and foremost be on the kicking game. Bethel will be a five-unit special teamer once again this season and be a potent running mate opposite fellow veteran Matthew Slater.
Does he have positional versatility? Bethel’s special teams prowess is where his primary value lies, and he has showed some versatility in the game’s third phase in the past: not only has he regularly been employed on five units — kickoff return and coverage, punt return and coverage, field goal/extra point block —, he was also moved through various spots within each one of them. Beyond his kicking game contributions, he also offers some versatility at cornerback. For example, the Patriots used him both on the perimeter of the defense (33 snaps) and inside the formation (21) when he saw the field in 2021.
What is his special teams value? Bethel is one of the most experienced and successful special teamers in the NFL, and as such provides considerable value for the Patriots. In the past, he has successfully played on punt and kickoff coverage as a gunner and front-line defender, respectively; he also lined up as a vice player on the punt return unit and as a blocker on kickoff returns. The 32-year-old furthermore has experience playing as a flanker/edge rusher on the field goal and extra point blocking units.
What is his salary cap situation? As part of the three-year contract extension he signed with the Patriots last March, Bethel is hitting the team’s books with a salary cap number of $2.03 million. That number consists of a $1.3 million salary — of which $500,000 are guaranteed — as well as a $333,333 signing bonus proration and $400,000 in active roster bonuses considered likely to be earned. If released, Bethel would carry a dead cap number of $883,333 (i.e. this year’s guarantees).
How safe is his roster spot? Based on his sizable dead cap hit alone, Bethel should be seen as a lock to make New England’s roster this year. Add the fact that he remains a bona fide special teamer and also offers experienced depth at cornerback, and you get a player who will not have to worry about his spot on the team. Even at age 32, Bethel will have plenty of value to the Patriots — in particular with Matthew Slater possibly heading into the final year of his career.
One-sentence projection: Bethel will again be among the Patriots’ leaders in special teams snaps and tackles.