Why special teams are the key to the New England Patriots' success

Specialists Matthew Slater (18) and Brendan Schooler (41)
Specialists Matthew Slater (18) and Brendan Schooler (41) / Chris Unger/GettyImages

During the 2022 season, the Patriots special teams unit was abysmal. For two decades, they were a team that prided itself on having elite special teams, but last year, they were just plain embarrassing.

According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots were ranked number one in special teams DVOA just two years ago. TWO YEARS AGO!

Fast forward to 2022, and they found themselves sitting pretty at dead last in the league. They won't go very far if they can't get back to at least the middle of the pack.

Last year, they couldn’t do anything right.

Diving into the numbers, two elements brought the entire unit down: punts and kickoffs.

Returning kicks was a strong point for this unit, thanks to Marcus Jones, so I expect that to continue. But the kicking needed work, so Belichick went to the draft for the right players.

They traded up in the fourth round to pick kicker Chad Ryland (Maryland) and drafted punter Bryce Baringer (Michigan State).

It is intriguing to note that their strengths directly correspond to the previous year's shortcomings in the Patriots' special teams.

The number of times I would watch the Patriots punt, half-expecting it to be blocked, gives me nightmares.

Just think back to when the Patriots played the Raiders last year.

It seemed that every punt was inches from getting blocked, and one actually was, and it cost them the game (besides Jakobi Meyers' mess up).

That's where the rookies come in and give us some optimism for the future. Baringer from Michigan last had a kick blocked four years ago. He gets the ball off his foot quickly and lets it fly and has had 50 punts over 50+ yards in the past two seasons alone. 

On the kickoff front, reliability was lacking, with Folk unable to consistently send the ball deep into the opposing team's endzone.

Enter Ryland, whose prowess in kickoffs at Maryland makes him a promising addition, but he was only 80% on all his field goal attempts which would be below average in the NFL in 2022.

For reference, Nick Folk was 86%. Although Baringer appears more secure in his role, healthy competition between the two kickers during training camp could prove beneficial for the team's overall improvement.

During punts and kickoffs, the coverage was also horrendous.

The Patriots reacted by having the most specialists they've ever had on a single team. They added to the group by signing Chris Board from the Detroit Lions. Bill Belichick raved about Board ahead of the Patriots week 5 matchup against the Lions last season, stating he was "the best special teams player we'll play against all year," a testament to his undeniable skill set.

With Joe Judge in his rightful position as special teams coordinator, the unit could have an improvement, although it won’t say much to be better than the worst-ranked unit in the league.

All the Patriots need to do is be average. They don't need to take over the world, but as is similar to an offensive line, an average special teams unit could be the difference in any game.

As the team enters a new era with Bill O'Brien at the helm and the talented Mac Jones leading the offense, questions abound regarding the cohesion of the offensive line and the much-anticipated performance of the wide receivers.

Nonetheless, rejuvenating the special teams is a vital piece in the puzzle, setting the foundation for the Patriots' resurgence as a force to be reckoned with in the league again.