Questionable roster cut by Belichick looks like right choice

Oct 30, 2022; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick before the game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 30, 2022; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick before the game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports /

When the Patriots announced their roster cuts this offseason, one of the more shocking names on the list was Justin Bethel. The collective reaction from those outside of Foxboro was confusion, as the elite special teamer had become a prominent part of the unit in his three years spent in New England. His release prompted many questions hurled Bill Belichick’s way, with many debating the coach’s decision not to retain a vital member of an already inconsistently performing group on the team.

Special teams has always been a favored part of football for Belichick, which made their struggles over the last few seasons much more alarming. With Bethel’s departure and several other players from the kicking unit signing elsewhere, concern began to brew over the future of special teams success for the Patriots, especially seeing that an undrafted free agent was kept in Bethel’s place.

But since the season began, Brenden Schooler has put those worries to rest with consistently productive performances every week.

The rookie first gained attention in week two when New England visited the Steelers. After a failed drive, Jake Bailey kicked a 37-yard punt to former Patriot Gunner Olszewski, who went on to muff the catch. Schooler was in the perfect position to recover the football, and courtesy of an unnecessary roughness penalty on the Steelers, the Patriots’ drive began on Pittsburgh’s 10-yard line.

Two plays later, Damien Harris ran it into the endzone for the touchdown.

A similar scenario happened four weeks later when the Patriots secured a dominating win over the Browns. After a quick three-and-out, Bailey punted a 41-yard kick that was muffed by Chester Rogers and recovered by Schooler. The offense took over at Cleveland’s 19-yard line, and one pass later to Tyquan Thronton, the Patriots scored another touchdown.

But Schooler’s incredible performance hasn’t stopped there.

Just last week against the Colts, Jonathan Jones blocked Matt Haack’s punt, which was recovered by Schooler and returned for six yards. And just like in the other games, the play set the Patriots up to score again, extending their lead before halftime to 13-0.

On top of outplaying any expectations placed on him at the beginning of the season, Schooler leads the team with eight ST tackles while accounting for three fumble recoveries through nine games this season. He currently ties for second place in the league for solo tackles with seven, registering at least one in the last four weeks.

Belichick raved about the rookie’s performance during his media availability on Monday morning, crediting his versatility and instincts as leading causes for his quick success in the NFL.

"“Schools is an instinctive kid. He picks things up quickly, and he’s played multiple positions for us in the kicking game, on both the coverage and the return units. So that’s been valuable for us, and it’s been good experiences for him. … He’s a pretty versatile player and a smart kid.”"

Schooler’s teammates have also complimented his performance thus far, with  Matthew Slater mentioning the rookie plays like he has been in the league for several years, providing a significant boost to the unit.

"“We really needed a guy that would be able to step up and be an impact player. (Schooler) has been doing that, and he’s not playing like a rookie, let me tell you that. He’s playing like he’s been doing this for a long time, and we’re really fortunate to have him. He’s giving us a boost right now. … Schools is doing a great job right now, and we’re going to keep riding him.”"

Although it remains a bit soon to conclude a rookie’s first-year performance, Belichick’s decision to keep Schooler appears to have paid off much more than anticipated. With Slater nearing the end of his career, a breakout season by Schooler eases the pain (a little) the team will feel with the veteran gone, and his production could undoubtedly make the unit dominant once again.