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In 2010, the Patriots’ special teams units turned in some of the best performances they’ve seen in years. Under second year special teams coach Scott O’Brien, the Pats finished in the top five in the league in 10 of 22 special teams statistical categories, including in scoring, blocked kicks, and, perhaps most importantly, fewest penalties.
The season was highlighted by one of the strongest special teams performances in the entire NFL season turned in a 41-14 thumping of the Dolphins in Week 4. In the second half of that game, Brandon Tate ran back a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown before Patrick Chung blocked a punt that set up a BenJarvus Green-Ellis short yardage TD, and a field goal attempt that was scooped up and returned all the way by Kyle Arrington (Chung also returned an interception for a score that game).
The Patriots look set to welcome back a number of familiar faces from those units, as well as add some new ones on the depth chart as they always do.
With O’Brien even further settled in and a number of young contributors with a season under their belts, special teams looks poised to build off their 2010 campaign on all fronts.
Tate returns as the team’s top kick returner from 2010. He started the season off strong, logging over 100 return yards in each of the Pats’ first four games and averaging 33.4 yards/return.
In that span, Tate ran back touchdowns in Week 1 against the Bengals and in the aforementioned Dolphins contest in Week 4. He looked poised to make a case for himself as a Pro Bowl returner, but his production dwindled as the season progressed, and he failed to find the end zone again. He finished the season with a 25.8 yards/return average.
Tate is no sure bet to make the Week 1 roster this year. Coupled with his disappointing finish to 2010 in the return game, he failed to steadily contribute in the passing attack after Randy Moss’ departure, and thus far in training camp is yet to make a convincing case on the field that he is indispensable.
There are a number of other players on the bubble who could contribute in the kick return game, as well. Matthew Slater ran back 22 kicks in the 2008 and 2009 seasons, but with disappointing results. Still, Belichick seems to like his versatility and for that reason has kept him on the roster the past three seasons.
Another name to watch is Jeremy Ross. The undrafted free agent out of Cal was the Golden Bears’ top return man. Although he had more success in the punt return game, he is a speedy and athletic player who could sneak onto the roster and see time if Tate or Slater stumble.
Other players who are sure-bets to make the roster and could get the spot return include Devin McCourty, Sammy Morris, and Kevin Faulk. In his senior season at Rutgers, McCourty averaged 25 yards/return and ran back the third longest touchdown in school history (98 yards). McCourty certainly has the ability, but it may not be worth the risk to put him out there to take wallops on the kick return team.
Morris ran back five kicks in 2010, and while he isn’t much of a threat to take one the distance, he is a safe bet to reach the 25-yard line without coughing the ball up. Faulk hasn’t seen consistent reps in the kickoff return game since 2006, but is always a safe option to put back there if needed.
While the question marks surrounding Tate have put the kickoff return game in question, there is much more stability in the punt return unit, starting with Julian Edelman. Edelman didn’t add much to the offense in 2010, but made his mark in the return game with an exclamation point coming as a 94-yard touchdown return to victimize (you guessed it) Miami in Week 14. Edelman set a franchise record with that return, which also helped him set another franchise record by averaging 15.2 yards/return.
In addition to Edelman, the Pats have a host of experienced punt returners, led by Faulk and Wes Welker. The aforementioned Ross and Slater, if either make the team, could provide further depth as punt returners, as could Chung, whom the Patriots have
had run back kicks on several occasions.
Gostkowski looks set to go after rehabbing from an injury-shortened 2010 in which Shayne Graham (no longer with the team) served as his replacement. The Pats have brought in former UMass kicker Chris Koepplin as competition, but the local undrafted free agent has reportedly struggled in camp, according to updates from ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss. Back at full health, Gostkowski is physically ready for the 2011 season, but there may be an adjustment period as he gets back up to game speed and recovers his touch. However, it looks fairly certain at this point that the Patriots’ all-time leader in field goal accuracy will be out on the field for kickoff in Week 1.
Mesko rewarded the Patriots for spending a 5th round draft pick on him by turning in a stellar season in 2010. After years of journeymen punters and ensuing shaky results, the Pats finally appear to have found stability in the 25-year old Mesko, who averaged 43.2 yards a punt with a long of 65 yards last season. His net average of 38.4 yards was the highest ever of a rookie punter in NFL history. Mesko made headlines during the lockout by spending his offseason interning as a private equity analyst in Philadelphia, but was quick to trade in his business suit for football pads once the lockout came to an end.
The Patriots pride themselves on their depth on special teams, and every year have a number of unsung heroes who become mighty contributors on the special teams coverage units. In 2010, Slater, Tracy White, and Kyle Arrington were the top three tacklers on a special teams unit that ranked 6th in the league in punt coverage and 17th in kickoff coverage. Other contributors included linebackers Dane Fletcher and Rob Ninkovich, while running backs Morris and Danny Woodhead proved valuable on kickoff coverage.
Slater, White, and Arrington may be fighting roster spots, but how players on the bubble perform on special teams is often the litmus test Belichick uses to determinehis final cuts. One new face to keep an eye on with this unit is Jeff Tarpinian. An undrafted free agent out of Iowa, Tarpinian was a tackling machine on Iowa’s kickoff coverage team and may have an inside track on a final roster spot if he can show in training camp and preseason games that he can bring his game to the professional level.
Often times, the unheralded performers on special teams come out of nowhere. Until the final cuts are made and the season gets underway, it is tough to speculate on who may step up, and who may get burned.
What we can be sure of, though, is that it will be this front that determines who will be in, and who will be out, come Week 1.