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NFL free agency 2023: What signing punter Corliss Waitman means for the Patriots

New England has a new punter.

NFL: DEC 25 Broncos at Rams Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Patriots have a new punter. As was announced by the club on Thursday, free agent Corliss Waitman has been signed to the roster.

Waitman entered the open market earlier this week, after the Denver Broncos rescinded the exclusive-rights tender they had originally placed on him. This set the stage for the 27-year-old to return to a familiar setting: he already had spent one month on the Patriots’ practice squad back in December 2021.

Now that he is back in the mix, let’s analyze what the signing means for the team.

The Patriots fill the only true vacancy on their roster. At this time of the year, with free agency slowing down and the draft preparation heating up, there is a lot of talk about team needs. From an essentialistic perspective, New England had only one of these: the club did not have a punter under contract ever since parting ways with Jake Bailey earlier this month. Now, the Patriots have filled this one true need of theirs.

New England only slightly upgrades its punter position, if at all. The Patriots’ punt game was a definitive weakness last season, with both Jake Bailey and Michael Palardy ranking near the bottom of the league in gross and net punting average. Waitman was slightly better, rankings-wise: he finished the 2022 season 19th in the NFL with 46.6 yards per kick, and 13th with a net of 41.5.

He also out-performed New England’s duo in average return yardage given up (8.2 yards), fair catch rate (30.2%) and rate of punts downed by his own team (14.6%). That all said, punt performance is also always a product of circumstance.

In Waitman’s case, he had the added benefit of making roughly half of his kicks in Denver (47 of 96); the high altitude allows for punts to travel farther and hang in the air longer. From that perspective, his 2022 outing was rather pedestrian — an opinion shared by Joe Mahoney at Mile High Report.

Adding this factor to the mix, the argument can be made that the Patriots made a lateral move if even that.

New England will likely still add a rookie to the equation. Given Waitman’s performance in 2022, and the need for long-term stability at the position, the Patriots will likely not rely solely on him this year. In fact, the team adding a rookie to the mix either in the draft or the subsequent free agency period should be expected.

Of the punters who will likely hear their names called in the draft, three stand out as the consensus top options: Oklahoma’s Michael Turk, Rutgers’ Adam Korsak, and Michigan State’s Bryce Baringer. Colleague Pat Lane had the Patriots use a fourth-round draft pick to bring Turk aboard in his latest mock draft.

Waitman offers some kickoff and holding experience. Jake Bailey did not just serve as the Patriots’ punter during his four seasons with the club, he also worked as a kickoff specialist and holder on field goal and extra points. Waitman also has some experience in those areas.

That said, his kickoffs at the NFL level all came in the 2021 preseason. He attempted five of them that year: three kickoffs resulted in touchbacks, with the other two returned for 21 and 20 yards, respectively (although the first was called back due to a holding penalty).

During his college career at South Alabama, meanwhile, he kicked off 43 times in 28 games. He had seven touchbacks and sent five of his kicks out of bounds.

Michael Palardy should not be expected back... Waitman being signed is bad news for the other punter on the Patriots’ roster at one point in 2022: unrestricted free agent Michael Palardy will likely not be brought back now.

The writing was on the wall given that Palardy struggled filling in for an injured Jake Bailey. He finished the season ranked near the bottom of the league with a gross punting gain of 42.4 yards (33rd) and a net of 36.4 yards (34th). Additionally, opposing returners registered an average of 14.4 yards against him on 18 returns while fair-catching 11 of his kicks.

...and Nick Folk might be happy about the change. Replacing Palardy with Waitman also might have a positive impact on the Patriots’ field goal and extra point operation. While Palardy had no obvious slip-ups as a holder, kicker Nick Folk made just 80.6 percent of his kicks with him in the lineup (25 of 31); he had a combined success rate of 95.1 percent on field goals and extra points (39 of 41) when Bailey was holding.

Coincidence? Possibly, but Palardy did have some issues as a holder during his time in Miami as well. As for Waitman, meanwhile, he appeared to perform well in this department between his stints in Pittsburgh, Las Vegas and, most recently, Denver.