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Countdown to Camp: Special teams/specialists

07.16.13 at 2:20 pm ET
By
Stephen Gostkowski

Stephen Gostkowski

As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Patriots. We kick off the series with a look at the special teamers and specialists:

Depth chart: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski (29-for-35 on FGA in 2012, 66-for-66 on XP, 153 points, 52 touchbacks on 111 kickoffs); punter Zoltan Mesko (38.5 net average, 28 of 60 punts landed inside the opponents’ 20); punter Ryan Allen; long snapper Danny Aiken.

Overview: This is going to be one of the most interesting — and underrated — spots to keep an eye on this summer. You have to figure that Gostkowski is fairly well entrenched at his position, but Allen boasts a pretty impressive college resume and could offer a serious challenge to the immensely likeable Mesko. Meanwhile, veteran Leon Washington could find work as a kick and punt returner — replacing an occasionally effective Julian Edelman — finally shaking the team free of The Curse of Ellis Hobbs. Lots of intrigue here when things kick off for real at camp later this month.

Three Things We Know:

Matt Slater is one of the best special teamers in the league. He’s not out there on a regular basis on either offense or defense, though given the turnover, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get a little run with the wide receivers this summer.

Yet for those casual fans who might question the wisdom of using a roster spot on a player without any real position like Slater, invest the $70 in NFL All-22 — which is available at NFL.com — and really watch No. 18 on New England on kick and punt teams. Few players have such a terrific ability to create havoc on special teams as Slater. His speed and smarts make him one of the best in the game. (In addition, for what it’s worth, his high character and work ethic make him one of the most respected players in the New England locker room.)

There’s going to be at least one more guy on the roster who will make the final 53 because of his special teams skills. In year’s past, New England has always carried at least three guys who are core special teamers. Whether it’s Slater (defensive back/wide receiver), Niko Koutouvides (linebacker), Tracy White (linebacker), Marquice Cole (cornerback) or Nate Ebner (safety), there are always players who make the team more for their special teams skills than their work on either side of the ball. Expect the same thing to happen this year, as (at least) Slater and Ebner figure to be roster locks, while Koutouvides and Cole could also figure into the mix in 2013 as core special teamers. (That’s not to mention any one of the rookies, including Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon.)

Gostkowski is still one of the best in the league. There was much upheaval around Foxboro at the start of the 2012 season when Gostkowski missed a potential game-winner against the Cardinals (after making two 50-plus yarders in that one), and botched a pair of field-goal chances in a win over the Bills. But he went 19-for-22 from October through January, and remains as dependable as any kicker in the league. For what it’s worth, over the first seven years of his career (in the regular season), Gostkowski has gone 170-for-202 (84 percent), including 39-for-55 from 40 to 49 yards out (71 percent). Meanwhile, in his first seven seasons, Adam Vinatieri was 187-for-229 (82 percent), including 50-for-73 from 40 to 49 yards out (68 percent).

Three Questions:

Will the Patriots add a kicker to try and push Gostkowski? New England had David Ruffer in camp, but that was mainly as an extra leg to try and save Gostkowski some reps. There are some roster spots available, and while there aren’t necessarily any elite kickers out there, if past history is any indication, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see New England bring in another kicker this summer.

Can Leon Washington lift the The Curse of Ellis Hobbs? Ever since Hobbs was dealt to Philadelphia in spring 2009, the Patriots have struggled to find consistency in the return game, but Washington, who turns 31 on Aug. 29, enters as the latest guy to take a shot at the job. The former Jet and Seahawk shares the NFL record with Josh Cribbs with eight career kickoff returns for touchdowns. He also tied an NFL record when he returned two kicks for a touchdown in a game against San Diego in 2010. Washington earned All-Pro honors in 2007, 2008 and 2010. The Patriots averaged just 21.2 yards per kickoff return last season, 25th in the NFL — meanwhile, Washington was second among returners with a 29.0 yard average as a member of the Seahawks.

Can Allen provide any serious competition for Mesko? Allen was a really good college punter. He was the first player to ever win the Ray Guy Award (given to the nation’s top punter) in back-to-back years while claiming first team All-WAC honors and receiving an invitation to both the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine. He finished 2012 averaging a school record 48.04 yards per punt, and dropped 20 punts inside the 20. In addition, he added 21 punts over 50 yards, including an 85-yard punt at New Mexico State, the longest punt in the nation during the 2012 season by any punter. Mesko has carved out an impressive three-year run in New England — while his net and total average dropped off slightly last year, he still dropped a career-best 28 punts inside the 20-yard line (46.7 percent) — but Allen represents the most significant challenge he’s faced in his time with the Patriots.

By the numbers: Gostkowski had 52 touchbacks in 2012, the fourth-highest total in the league. (That represented 46.4 percent of all kickoffs.)

Key new player: Washington. No one is quite sure how much he has left in the tank, but he’s coming off an impressive season with the Seahawks, and just having him around and healthy on a consistent basis could bring some stability to the return game, something the Patriots have been lacking for a long time. Meanwhile, Edelman was in a walking boot and missed out on the spring sessions. (Although he did work out on the floor of Gillette Stadium one afternoon in full view of the media that was sitting in the press box.) In a perfect world for the Patriots, Washington takes over the returners job, while Edelman provides some depth but serves mostly as a receiver. (After all, he’s the only receiver currently on the roster who caught a pass from Tom Brady last year.)

The skinny: Special teams don’t necessarily generate a lot of debate among casual fans, but they’re going to be a couple of interesting positional battles this summer. Between Mesko and Allen and Washington and Edelman, it’s really going to be an area worth watching over the course of the summer and into the preseason.

Read More: Countdown to Camp, Stephen Gostkowski, Zoltan Mesko,
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