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Countdown to camp: Special teams

07.19.14 at 9:30 am ET
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As training camp approaches, we’€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We’ve examined the wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, running back and quarterback positions. Now, we take a look at special teams.

Depth chart: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski; punter Ryan Allen; long snappers Danny Aiken and Tyler Ott; special teams captain Matthew Slater; punt returner Julian Edelman

Overview: It was a good 2013 for the specialists. With the exception of one glaring misstep (a late kickoff against the Dolphins in Miami caromed out of bounds, setting the stage for a Dolphins comeback), Gostkowski was very good all year, while Allen was a solid if unspectacular presence at punter. Meanwhile, the return games were mostly good and occasionally great at times, as LeGarrette Blount went from special teams punchline to quality return man — among his highlights was an 83-yard return against the Bills in the regular-season finale. In addition, Edelman had another good year as punt returner, and his 12.3 career return average now is tied for seventh on the all-time list. Going forward, there are questions as to who will replace Blount as kick returner, as well as the possibility of some of last year’s core special teamers (like Tavon Wilson) being squeezed out of back-of-the-roster spots because of positional battles. But if the health of Gostkowski, Edelman and Slater (and some others) holds, Scotty O’Brien‘s crew appears poised for another good year.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Stephen Gostkowski is one of the best kickers in the game.

Setting aside the previously mentioned botched kickoff in a loss to Miami (a game in which he also missed a 48-yard field goal in the second half), Gostkowski had the best season of his career in 2013. He had game-winners to beat the Bills and Broncos, as well as big late kicks against the Jets and Texans, one that led to overtime and other that ended up clinching a road victory. He also successfully executed an onside kick in the dramatic win over the Browns. In all, he finished the year 35-of-38 on field-goal attempts, as well as 65 touchbacks. He led the league in scoring — his 158 points were a career best, as well as best in the league in 2013 and 10th in NFL history.

2. Matthew Slater is one of the best pure special teamers in the league.

We’ve said it roughly 3,000 times over the last few years, but spend the $70 and get the All-22 film. That’s likely the only way you’ll get a real sense of just how good Slater is when it comes to speed, strength and ability to work as a disruptive presence. Belichick was effusive in his praise of Slater’s work as a gunner last year, saying he’s “one of the best in the league” in that department, adding that he always seems to draw double teams when he’s on the outside. Good for two or three targets a season at wide receiver, he is a pure special teamer and has carved out a nice niche for himself on the roster. (One more thing worth noting: The fact that the team took Slater — one of the most respected players in the locker room — on the road last season after he went down with an injury is a good sign of how highly regarded he is by Bill Belichick, as well as the rest of the franchise.)

3. The kick returning job is wide open.

The Patriots have found good kick return performances sporadically over the last five years — including the work offered by Blount over most of the second half of 2013 — but since Ellis Hobbs was dealt to the Eagles following the 2008 season, New England has struggled to find consistency at the position. Now, with Blount gone, the job is available again. A variety of faces rotated through the position throughout the spring, but no one was able to distinguish themselves during OTA’s and minicamp.

(One more thing: Allen was also one of the best things about the Patriots in the AFC title game, dropping three first-half punts inside the 20 and doing his part to help tilt the field for New England in the early going.)

THREE QUESTIONS

1. Who has the inside track on the kick returning job?

Right now, you have to figure that the returnees who have shown some level of proficiency at the NFL level have the best shot. That’s a group that includes McCourty and Edelman, although you figure the Patriots would be reticent to lean on two key players like Devin McCourty and Edelman in the … wait, wait, scratch that. We’re talking about the Patriots here, and New England has never been afraid to throw a needed veteran into a key special teams role — toss them into the mix with everyone else. Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins figure to also get a crack at the job in hopes of proving they have some special teams value at the next level, which could ultimately help them if there’s a roster spot at stake. In addition, rookies like Jeremy Gallon (more on him shortly) and James White have experience in college, and could get a crack at the job this summer.

2. Is special teams value enough to save some guys on the back end of the roster?

Certainly. The Patriots have never been shy about having a player who might provide exemplary special teams skills take a roster spot. In years past, players like Dane Fletcher and BenJarvus Green-Ellis got their intro into the league through special teams and then used that entry to go on to bigger and better things. In addition to youngsters like Gallon, White, Boyce and Thompkins (all of whom could be angling for a return gig), there are veterans who work as part of coverage units who are hoping their special teams skills are enough to get them through the final cuts. Veterans like Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner have to be considered favorites to provide special teams depth (ahead of their defensive skill set, anyway), as well as new linebacker Josh Hull, who has extensive special teams experience with the Redskins and Rams.

3. Will the Patriots add anyone to try to push either Allen or Gostkowski?

Despite the fact that Belichick isn’t above trying to bring in another player to create some competition from time to time in hopes of pushing the incumbent — or even just keeping the starters on a pitch count throughout camp — there are no other kickers or punters on the roster at this moment. It’s no surprise, as both are coming off good 2013 campaigns, and both looked very solid over the course of the spring workouts (Allen in particular). While theoretically there’s still time for them to shuffle the roster between now and the start of camp, at this point, it’s their show.

By the numbers: 3 – Gostkowski has three of the top 20 scoring seasons in NFL history — 158 points in 2013 (10th overall), 153 points in 2012 (13th overall)  and 148 points in 2008 (tied for 17th overall). He’s the only player in the history of the league to appear three times in the top 20.

Key new player: There are plenty of possibilities when it comes to replacing Blount at kick returner, including Shane Vereen, McCourty, Boyce, Thompkins and Gallon. It should be noted that the Patriots have enjoyed a good run of squeezing value out of seventh-round picks over the last decade-plus, a group that includes Edelman, Matt Cassel, David Givens and Alfonzo Dennard — Gallon could be the latest member of the Lucky Seven club. If Boyce or Thompkins could make the job their own (Boyce has a better shot than Thompkins), it could help them solidify a roster spot it what has suddenly become a crowded field at wide receiver.

The skinny: The Patriots have a well-entrenched incumbent at kicker and punt returner, and a punter who was above average, according to most metrics. In addition, the coverage areas are mostly solid. The only question at this point is who will take the reins at kick returner. If New England can nail down that question between now and the start of the 2014 season, it projects to be another pretty good season for the Patriots’ special teamers.

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