New England Patriots: From worst to first in the NFL in Special Teams?
By Jon Galvin
No doubt, Bill Belichick loves his Alaskan Klee Klee, the adorable Nike, but there’s also no doubt that he loves special teams even more. According to Football Outsiders, the New England Patriots finished dead last in DVOA rankings among NFL special teams in 2022. For Bill Belichick, a former special teams coach, the 2022 season, undoubtedly, to borrow a phrase from John Bunyan, still “stinks in His nostrils.”
The areas in which the Pats struggled the most in 2022 were kickoff returns and punt returns. Specifically, the Pats, who allowed 3 kickoff returns for TDs, had the worst DVOA ranking in the NFL both when kicking off (-20.6) and when punting (-10.3).
Some called for the firing of Patriots Special Teams coach Cameron Achord after the 2022 season but Belichick supported Achord. The problem, then, must have been the players and the Pats responded. The team signed free agents and drafted players to strengthen all phases of their special teams, but particularly the kickoff and punt coverage teams.
Here is a look at the currently-rostered special teamers on the Patriots and a prediction how the Pats’ special teams will perform in 2023.
Coverage Players (Kickoffs/Punts)
Chris Board. The Pats signed Chris Board, a linebacker and special teams ace who Bill Belichick, during the 2022 season, called “the best special teams player we’ll play against.” Board participates in five groups on special teams: kickoff coverage, punt coverage, kickoff return, field goal rush, and offensive punt return. In 2022, he had 356 snaps and 7 tackles to his credit while working on these units (snap counts and player grades derived from Pro Football Focus (PFF)).
Matthew Slater. The veteran Slater, entering his 11th season for the Patriots, remains a special teams stud with a special teams grade of 73.4 from PFF in 2022. Slater participates in five special teams groups and recorded 8 solo tackles and 6 assisted tackles in 2022.
Brenden Schooler. Brenden “Schools” Schooler emerged as a special teams star in 2022. He had a special teams grade of 86.2 from PFF and was named on the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie team as a special teams specialist. Schooler played in 330 snaps in 2022 with 12 solo tackles, 1 assisted tackle, and 2 fumble recoveries. While Schooler had an excellent season overall, his special teams play suffered after a shoulder injury against the Cincinnati Bengals in week 16.
Cody Davis. Davis remains a superb special teamer with PFF special teams grades of 91.7 in 2020 and 90.9 in 2021. Davis only played in six games in 2022, suffering a season-ending knee injury in week 6 against the Cleveland Browns. Davis recorded 106 snaps, 5 solo tackles and 1 assisted tackle in his injury-shortened season.
DaMarcus Mitchell. Mitchell was a solid contributor on special teams in 2022. He was on the field for 310 snaps, participated in five special teams groups, and recorded 5 solo tackles and 2 assisted tackles.
Raleigh Webb. Webb had 172 special teams snaps with the Ravens and Patriots in 2022. He participated in four special teams groups and assisted on one tackle but did not record a solo tackle.
Marte Mapu. It’s not certain that 3rd-round pick Mapu will play on special teams in 2023, but he’s got the size, the speed, and the experience to excel in that area. Marte participated in kickoff coverage, punt return coverage, and field goal blocking teams for the Hornets in 2021 and 2022. He showed excellent coverage ability with a PFF special teams grade of 86.6.
Jourdan Heilig. Helig is an undrafted free agent from Appalachian State. Bill Belichick, who apparently spends his weekends motoring up and down the Blue Ridge Parkway searching for special teams aces, rescued Helig from a Zaxby’s fast-food restaurant. Helig is a candidate for the practice squad but, depending on health of the starters, could work his way into a special teams coverage role.
Bryce Baringer. Baringer was Walter Football’s top-rated punter and led the NCAA’s FBS with a 49-yard average in 2022. Given his youth and the use of a 6th-round pick to get him, Baringer is the favorite to win the punter position.
Corliss Waitman. The Pats signed Waitman, a left-footed punter, in March, 2023. Waitman averaged 46.6 yards per punt for the Denver Broncos last season and remains a viable option if Baringer isn't ready to start at the beginning of the season.
Chad Ryland. Ryland made 19-of-23 field goals kicking for the Maryland Terps in 2022. The Patriots were widely criticized both for choosing a kicker in the 4th-Round and for trading up to get one. Opinions differ on Ryland. Drafttek.com ranked him as only the 10th best kicker available, behind Jack Podlesny and Christopher Dunn, who signed as undrafted free agents with the Minnesota Vikings and the Los Angeles Rams, respectively. Mel Kiper, however, ranked Ryland as his top kicker in the NFL draft. Based on position selected in the draft alone, Ryland wins the kicking job.
Nick Folk. Folk remains a reliable field goal kicker with an 86.5% success rate in 2022, but is a liability on kickoffs, managing only 3 touchbacks on 33 kickoffs in 2022. Folk’s short kickoffs contributed to at least the first of two kickoff returns for TDs by the Buffalo Bills’ Nyheim Hines in Week 18 of 2022.
Marcus Jones. Marcus Jones led the NFL with an average of 12.5 yards per punt return and finished 7th in the NFL with 23.9 yards per kickoff return. Jones was named by the Pro Football Writers of America as its All-NFL punt returner in 2022.
Isaiah Bolden. Bolden played very little on special teams in 2022 for Jackson State, but he led the FCS with a 36.9 yards per kickoff return average in 2021. Bolden also played some snaps on both the kick and punt coverage return teams in 2021.
Demario Douglas. If the dimunitive Douglas can’t break into the lineup as a slot receiver, he might be useful returning kickoffs and punts, which he did for Liberty from 2020 through 2022. Douglas ranked 44th in the NCAA in punt returns in 2022 with an average of 4.1 yards per return although his kickoff return average declined from 29.5 avg yards to in 2021 to 20.8 yards in 2022.
The Bottom Line
Can the Patriots special teams turn their performance around in 2023? Here are three reasons for optimism:
First, injuries played a key role in 2022. Of the three kickoffs for TDs the Patriots allowed in 2022, two came in the last game of the season against Buffalo when the kickoff coverage group was depleted by injuries—Davis was injured early in the season while Schooler was injured in Week 16 and inactive for the Buffalo game. With an additional injury in November to punter and kickoff specialist Jake Bailey, the Pats relied at the end of the season on the ageing Nick Folk for kickoffs.
Second, Bill Belichick responded to the Patriots’ disastrous special teams 2022 season by adding several new players to the special teams groups through free agency and the draft. Besides Chris Board, Belichick added the NCAA’s top-ranked punter in Bryce Baringer and a kicker in Ryland who should be able to consistently reach the end zone on kickoff. In Bolden and Douglas, the Patriots have two exciting returners to go along with All-Pro punt returner Marcus Jones.
Third, historically the Patriots special teams groups have been very good. As recently as 2020, the Patriots were ranked No. 1 in DVOA for special teams. Given all the attention paid, money spent, and manpower added since the end of the 2022 season, the Patriots’ special teams performance is likely to be a focus throughout the 2023 season. We can expect at least a return to a top 10 special teams DVOA ranking for the Patriots in 2023, even if a return to a No. 1 DVOA ranking may be a bit out of reach.