By Bruce Allen, Patriots Daily Staff
Yup, training camp is just over two weeks away. We ask it every year, but where the heck does the time go?
This will be the first in a series of previews looking at various positional groups and units as we head into camp. Today’s group is special teams.
O’Brien came over from Denver last season, replacing long time special teams coach Brad Seely. According to FootballOutsiders, the Patriots were 13th in Special Teams last season. The number one team? The Seely-led Cleveland Browns. FO had the Patriots 6th in 2008 under Seely. So was it the coach or the players that resulted in the dropoff last season? O’Brien is an old Belichick friend, who got his first NFL job with Belichick’s Browns in the early 90’s. It will be interesting to see if this unit performs better with a year under O’Brien under its belt, or if the middle-of-the-pack ranking remains.
He enters his fifth NFL season as one of the top kickers in the NFL. When he was drafted, there was a lot of talk about being able to replace Adam Vinatieri, but that talk has mostly dissipated by this time. He’s got one of the strongest legs in the league, his booming kickoffs can be just as much of a weapon as his field goal range. His career accuracy on field goals of 85.6% is the highest in Patriots history. He was one of the would-be free agents who found himself in the restricted class with the rule changes this offseason, unlike classmate Logan Mankins, Gostkowski signed his tender early and participated in all offseason activity. Still, should he hit the free agent market, there will be plenty of interest in him around the league.
- Zoltan Mesko, P
The rookie from Michigan is the only punter in camp, which seems to indicate that the job is already his. Reports from spring camps have him struggling a little bit with consistency, though there is no question about the strength of his leg. Like Gostkowski, he does not come in the traditional mold of a punter, as he is bigger and more athletic than most NFL punters. The Patriots seem to be hoping they can get the same type of results from Mesko in the punting game as they’ve gotten from Gostkowski in place-kicking.
- Jake Ingram, LS
Like Gostkowski, Ingram found himself trying to replace a Patriots legend as a rookie. Coming in after Lonnie Paxton, Ingram held off veteran competition from free agent signee Nathan Hodel to grab the job. You know Ingram was solid last season because you didn’t hear a peep about him as the season went on. Ingram seems to have the long snapping job all to himself for a number of years to come. In preparation for an emergency, seventh round pick Thomas Welch and linebacker Rob Ninkovich have also been spotted doing some long snapping during the spring camps.
What I noticed about these three players is that they were all drafted by the Patriots, right when they had a need at the position. They were also drafted a bit higher than many anticipated.
To me, this puts on display another benefit of the Bill Belichick draft strategy of accumulating as many picks as possible in each draft. Because the Patriots had so many picks, they were able to draft the special teams players and fill a need on their roster by grabbing the best that the college game had to offer that year. Many teams rely on undrafted players at these spots, or on veteran retreads. By drafting these guys, the Patriots are able to get guys who are more talented, and develop them in their system right from the start.
Here are a few of the players on the roster who are viewed as primarily special teams players, or who project to spend a lot of time on those units, as well as a regular offensive or defensive position.
- Devin McCourty, CB
One of the first phrases I head about McCourty after the Patriots drafted him was “great special teams player.” That gave me pause for a bit, as like many of you, I’m hoping from more from a first-round draft pick than simply a special teams player. As time goes by, it seems that McCourty will have a role in the defense, perhaps even challenging for a starting spot, or at the least the nickel back role. Belichick has described McCourty as one of those rare “four downs” players – someone who can play on the regular defense AND the special teams.
- Matthew Slater, S/WR
Slater was drafted as a special teams player out of UCLA. He’s been praised for his athleticism, and last season displayed his toughness by suffering a pretty gruesome-looking arm injury in the final preseason game, which some projected would knock him out for the season, yet he played in the third regular season game, and every game after that. Slater might need to fight for a job in the preseason, as he pretty much is only a ST player, and I’ve already expressed my thoughts on the ability of the Patriots to carry multiple players who can’t really contribute to a regular unit. If Slater can get something going with kickoff returns, he will increase his chances of making the team.
We’ve grouped these guys together in the past. That article pretty much sums up my feelings on these two, and what chances they have to stick around for another year. Woods did lead the Patriots in special teams tackles a year ago with 18.
- Sam Aiken, WR
Another guy who has been previously profiled here, he seems a lock to stick around, given his role as special teams captain and that he can be reasonable serviceable when put on the field as an extra receiver.
- Kyle Arrington, CB
Arrington was signed off the Patriots practice squad on November 8th and played the final eight games of the regular season. Despite playing only half the season, he finished second on the team in special teams tackles, with 17. His promotion may have had something to do with interest shown in him from Eric Mangini’s Cleveland Browns, but he made the Patriots look good by adding him to the roster with his performance. He’s been in the defensive mix during spring workouts, and seems a good bet to make the team again.
- Marques Murrell, LB
Signed away from the New York Jets this offseason, Murrell’s pass-rushing skills have been mentioned as a reason for his signing, but it seems more like he was also signed for his special teams play, which included a forced fumble last season, and being named Jets special teams player of the game in the Jets/Patriots game played in Foxborough last November.
A problem area since Ellis Hobbs was traded to the Eagles, during the preseason the Patriots will try Slater, Kevin Faulk, Buddy Farnham, Brandon Tate , Julian Edelman, Laurence Maroney, Terrence Wheatley and anyone else they think can do the job in a effort to get better results in 2010. Tate has intriguing possibilities as a kickoff returner with his speed, but his knee injury and whether he can be counted on to catch and hang onto the ball will determine whether he can take the job.
The Patriots will need a much-improved special teams performance in 2010 if they hope to return to the postseason and remain championship contenders. Getting a return game in both kickoffs and punts is one of the biggest priorities, as field position was a problem at times for this team in 2009. The placekicking is strong, but punting is a little bit uncertain with a rookie in that position. Bill Belichick teams are traditionally strong in the special teams area, and a return to form is a big key to 2010.