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Often the most overlooked aspect of a football team, special teams plays a significant role in every offensive drive and defensive stand. They determine whether an offense must drive 80 yards or 10, and vice versa.
Head coach Bill Belichick has been one to put heavy emphasis on this area. He has been known in the past to spend much more time in practice on special teams than other coaches. The emphasis is particularly evident when you look at the fact that he often uses key players on special teams, including Jerod Mayo last year, and Mike Vrabel in the past. This year’s group is still somewhat uncertain, but here is a look at some of the key special-teamers.
The most visible special teams player is often the place-kicker, as he has the most direct effect on the score. Following the departure of fan-favorite Adam Vinatieri, Stephen Gostkowski was drafted in the fourth round of the 2006 draft and he has not disappointed.
Gostkowski finished up last season going 26-for-31 on field goals, an 83.9 average. He was a perfect 47-for-47 on extra points and had a career-high 67.8-yard average on kickoffs. For his career he holds a field goal percentage of 85.1, and has made one from 53 yards away for his career-long. He holds the NFL record for most PATs attempted and made with 74, both set in 2007. He was also named to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro team in 2008. At the age of 26, he is likely to continue to be one of the top-5 place-kickers in the league for several more years.
Going into this off-season, who would take over at the punter position was one of the bigger question marks for this team. In April, the Patriots signed former Australian-league soccer player, David King, to fill the void, but he appears to be a long-shot to make the team with the drafting of Zoltan Mesko.
The first punter taken in the draft, Mesko was selected in the fifth round and signed with the team on June 16. The left-footed kicker has drawn rave reviews about his powerful leg in the limited time the media has been able to watch him thus far. Ultimately, his success will depend more on directional kicking and consistency, but all signs are positive. He is also expected to be the ball holder for Gostkowski this year, an area that was emphasized early in this year’s minicamp.
The Patriots struggled as group in this area last year. Wes Welker’s nagging injuries early in the season did not help the situation, but also shows the lack of depth in this area behind him.
Optimally, the team does not want one of its star players returning the ball because of fatigue and injuries, so this year they will look for a younger guy to emerge in this role. The guys that were working at this position earlier in mini-camp were Julian Edelman, Kevin Faulk, Brandon Tate, Matthew Slater, Darius Butler, and Devin McCourty.
Edelman seems like a guy that could emerge as a primary punt-return option. He shares the traits of being quick and elusive with Welker, but they both lack great top-end speed. This works perfectly for a punt-returner since they do not necessarily have a large amount of open-space to work with, but need to make fast cuts to pick-up quick yardage.
Tate and Butler look like the top candidates for returning kick-offs. Both have great top speeds and had success as returners in college. Tate could be in for a break-out season after missing most of last season with injuries, and returning kicks may be a big part of his role.
Slater is also a young guy who has stuck around primarily as a special-teamer. He has some of the best speed on the team, but has contributed more as gunner on the other side of kick-offs. Faulk is a safe-bet to see some time as a returner and is almost always solid, if unspectacular. McCourty is likely to also see significant time on special teams, but like Slater, it may be more often on the kick-off team.
The rest of special teams is often made up of fringe roster players. Belichick always likes to say that versatility is highly valued by the team and contributing on special teams is a good way to make the roster if a player is otherwise unlikely to make the team.
One player that emerged in this respect last year was rookie cornerback Kyle Arrington. Spending the first part of the season on the practice squad, he emerged to tie for the lead in special teams tackles on the team with 18. Outside linebacker Pierre Woods was the other player with 18 tackles on special teams, and has been a solid contributor in this area since he was drafted.
Other players to watch for are LB Eric Alexander (13 special teams tackles in 2009), S Brandon McGowan (12), and WR Sam Aiken (11). Alexander and Aiken have been special teams leaders for a few years, but both could be in jeopardy of not making the final roster with the influx of youth over the past two years. McGowan should see more time here as second-year player Pat Chung is likely to start at safety this year.
Tags: Adam Vinatieri, Bill Belichick, Brandon McGowan, Brandon Tate, Darius Butler, David King, Devin McCourty, Eric Alexander, Jerod Mayo, Julian Edelman, Kevin Faulk, Kyle Arrington, Matthew Slater, Mike Vrabel, New England Patriots, Pat Chung, Pierre Woods, Sam Aiken, Stephen Gostkowski, Wes Welker, Zoltan Mesko