Overview: It may not be an equal share, but special teams indeed is a key third phase of the game of football. Bill Belichick certainly spends significant time and money on the kicking game. Heading into 2019 that equates to a Patriots team that returns veteran kicker Stephen Gostkowski and long snapper Joe Cardona, while facing plenty of questions in regards to punts and punt/kickoff returns.
Players (season #): K Stephen Gostkowski (14), LS Joe Cardona (5), P Ryan Allen (7), P Jake Bailey (R)
Coaching: Joe Judge will continue to oversee the Patriots special teams units, but his time will spread a bit thin this year as he also takes over a unique role as New England’s wide receivers coach. While there isn’t often a lot of overlap in drills or meetings between offense and the kicking game, Judge’s dual role could put a little more focus on assistant special teams coach Cameron Achord.
Competition: Neither Gostkowski nor Cardona has competition in camp this summer, so they’ll retain their roles. Though not perfect, Gostkowski remains one of the better veteran kickers in the game and returns with a new two-year, $8.5 million contract this offseason. Ryan Allen isn’t nearly as secure in his job, where he’ll face off with fifth-round pick Jake Bailey in a battle for the punting job. Allen finished last season in impressive fashion in the Super Bowl, but has been inconsistent in recent years and will have to fend off the youngster with the stronger leg and ability to kick off. While undrafted rookie Corey Bojorquez never got much of a chance to prove his stuff in a battle with Allen last summer, look for Bailey to get plenty of practice and preseason reps to show his mettle. Beyond the punting job, New England may very well have open tryouts to find returners for both punts and kickoffs. While Julian Edelman will always be trusted on punt returns, it’s unlikely the coaches want to have him in that role full time. Though few players have much experience, Braxton Berrios and others could improve their roster positioning in the return game. Joint practice and preseason game reps on returns will have as much riding on them as they have in years in New England.
Prediction: Gostkowski and Cardona are locks in their roles and roster spots. An early spring look at Bailey showed his elite leg and hang time, as well as some of the inconsistency that is expected with a young specialist. It’s extremely unlikely that Belichick would keep two punters, even if Bailey handled some kickoffs, so it’s up to the rookie to do enough to take Allen’s job. Don’t bet against it. As for the punt and kickoff return jobs, those are completely up in the air at this point and could very alter into the regular season, as was the case a year ago when Riley McCarron muffed his way right out of the punt return role early last September. Kick and punt coverage has plenty of strong veteran candidates led by Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Brandon Bolden and Brandon King, though they will be challenged by younger players and newcomers such as Terrence Brooks, Keion Crossen, Christian Sam and others. Ebner, in particular, could be a tough battle to retain his roster spot.