The Minnesota Vikings returned a kickoff for a touchdown in a seven-point win over the New England Patriots. The Buffalo Bills scored twice on kickoff returns in the season finale. New England missed two extra points in a four-point loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
To say the Patriots had a bad year on special teams would be an understatement. From kicking to coverage, New England did very little right in the third aspect of the game.
There may not be a head coach that cares more about special teams than Bill Belichick. So for the team to be embarrassingly bad at it, it’s possible that Belichick took that performance personally.
Belichick is determined to not repeat the New England Patriots’ special teams performance from last year
Marcus Jones was one of the very few bright spots from New England’s special teams. The Patriots were 27th in kickoff return average allowed (25.63), allowed three kickoff return touchdowns, 29th in punt average (45.53), last in net punt average (38.15), had a punt blocked, and were tied for last with ten touchbacks.
They were Keystone Cops bad.
Poor special teams cost the Patriots wins, and not just directly. Because the Patriots excelled at special teams for years, it’s unfathomable it was one of the league’s worst in 2022. But it was, and Belichick is determined to fix that.
It starts with coaching. Joe Judge was moved from offensive assistant/quarterbacks coach to assistant head coach. While it’s not official, it’s expected that Judge will expel much of his energy coaching special teams. The unit was highly efficient under Judge’s direction from 2015-19.
The next step is upgrading the personnel, though keeping special teams legend Matthew Slater came first. He’s back for his 16th season but is nearing the end of his decorated career.
In free agency, the Patriots added LB Chris Board from the Detroit Lions. Belichick called Board “the best special teams player we'll play against all year,” before New England defeated the Lions last season.
The final pieces came through the draft, selecting K Chad Ryland in the fourth round, P Bryce Baringer, and CB Ameer Speed in the sixth round.
The new personnel is a huge deal. They will likely usher in a new era, replacing two veterans that were with the team for years.
Baringer should replace Jake Bailey, who was the worst punter in the NFL last year. Bailey was last in punt average (42.1, minimum 20 punts) and net punt average (35.3). It won’t take much for Baringer to improve upon those numbers.
Ryland is challenging 15-year veteran Nick Folk. Folk was an excellent mid-season find in 2019, but his accuracy dipped to 86.5 percent after finishing in the 90s the previous two seasons.
Belichick has been searching for an upgrade for years. But finding an accurate kicker with better leg strength is easier said than done. Folk fended off challenges from Justin Rohrwasser and Quinn Nordin.
Ryland might be different. He successfully moved up from the MAC to the Big Ten; he was selected All-Big Ten second team and displays the ability to kick under pressure in less than ideal conditions and with accuracy from long range.
Even if Ryland isn’t clearly better than Folk, all he needs to show are good enough traits to be developed. If the competition is even, expect Ryland to stay on the roster.
Speed could be the most exciting addition of the three rookies. He’s a 6-3 209-pound cornerback with over 500 snaps on special teams. Want to prevent punt and kickoff return scores? Find someone with a 4.34 40-yard dash. Adding Speed to a coverage unit with Slater and the rising Brenden Schooler should lead to excellent results.
If Speed makes the roster, which is expected, his special teams/defense versatility will give him the edge. If he doesn’t, then Speed is possibly the long-term replacement for Slater whenever he hangs up his cleats. With Slater under contract, though, just this season, the end could be real soon.
This is a dramatic overhaul for special teams, but it’s necessary. The third phase could have cost the New England Patriots at least three wins last season. That difference kept the Patriots out of the playoffs.
It’s a more challenging schedule this year, so the Patriots’ margin for error may be even smaller this year. And they have to adapt to new kickoff rules. How much better the Patriots will be is the question they must answer, because it would be hard to be that bad on special teams two years in a row.