When it comes to special teams, there aren’t many if any coaches who put an emphasis on it more than Bill Belichick.
Being strong in all three phases of the game is something Belichick has preached from Day 1, and watching the Patriots over the years it’s easy to see that translate over to the field, where the Patriots have consistently had a top special teams unit.
And we’re not just talking about field goals and punts, but all the little things that go into make those successful.
The NFL, however, is essentially trying to eliminate the kickoff. Five years ago the kickoff was moved from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line, which has since cut kick return plays from 80.1-percent to 41.1-percent, according to NFL.com.
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And a new rule set over the offseason rewards the return team an extra five yards for a touchback, placing it at the 25-yard line.
That’s nice, but there’s one problem with that rule: the kicking team has less incentive to kick the football into the end zone.
It will be interesting to see how the Patriots and Stephen Gostkowski handle the new rule, but there’s a good chance the NFL may have actually increased kick returns with this rule, making special teams all the more important.
Locks: Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Joe Cardona, Matthew Slater, Brandon King, Nate Ebner
Gostkowski’s 2015 season ended on a very sour note with his missed PAT in the first quarter of the AFC Championship Game. It snapped a steak of 523 straight made extra points, and came back to bite the Patriots in the fourth quarter when they were forced to go for a two-point conversion to tie the game . . . and couldn’t convert.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Gostkowski is arguably the best kicker in the game and as previously noted takes on an even bigger role with the new kickoff rule.
The Patriots should certainly be more inclined to force the opponent to run the ball out of the end zone. Last year they held opponents to just 18.1 yards per return, the second-lowest amount in the NFL behind the Bills.
A huge reason for this success is the special teams play of Slater, King, and Ebner. Slater is officially listed as a wide receiver on the team’s roster, but he’s really their special teams ace. Having been named to the First-Team All Pro three times and Pro Bowl five times, it’s easy to see why.
Ebner, the now US Olympian, is built for kick coverage and has really come into his own as an NFL player on the special teams unit. King burst onto the scene as an undrafted free agent last year. He was activated from the team’s practice squad before Week 4, and stayed on the 53-man roster the rest of the season as a very effective gunner opposite Slater.
For returners, Julian Edelman, Cyrus Jones, Danny Amendola, Keshawn Martin, and Slater could all see time. Look for Jones, the Patriots’ first pick in this year’s NFL Draft, to get a lot of opportunities. He showcased his ability in last Friday’s win over the Panthers with a 60-yard punt return