The new NFL year begins Wednesday, March 16, and with it, the advent of 2022's free agent marketplace. Leading up to that first day, we'll examine the landscape from a Patriots perspective, beginning with specialists.
PATRIOTS FREE AGENTS
Kickers: Nick Folk
Long Snappers: None
Coverage/Returner: Brandon King, Gunner Olszewski (RFA), Matthew Slater
OTHER NOTABLE NFL FREE AGENTS
Kickers: Younghoe Koo (Atlanta Falcons), Randy Bulloch (Tennessee Titans)
Punters: Andy Lee (Arizona Cardinals), Kevin Huber (Cincinnati Bengals), Dustin Colquitt (Cleveland Browns), Bryan Anger (Dallas Cowboys), Corey Bojorquez (Green Bay Packers)
Long Snappers: Matt Overton (L.A. Chargers), Morgan Cox (Tennessee Titans), Jonathan Weeks (Houston Texans), Clark Harris (Cincinnati Bengals)
Long Snappers: None
Coverage/Returner: King, Olszewski, Slater
At age 37, Nick Folk is coming off two consecutive seasons that were among the most productive of his NFL career. Nonetheless, New England kept undrafted rookie Quinn Nordin around all season, likely as a long-term developmental prospect, as evidenced by the future contract to which they signed him right after the Wild Card loss to Buffalo. It would be hard to imagine Folk not being back in a Patriots uniform in 2022, but Nordin will be competing with him again, just like last year.
Meanwhile, New England still has one of the best punters in the league, even though Jake Bailey couldn't quite replicate his Pro Bowl and All-Pro form of 2020. An injury to his right (kicking) knee early in the season may have hampered his performance a bit, but when at full strength, Bailey is as solid as they come as both a punter and the team's primary kickoff specialist. With Bailey under contract through the upcoming season, I wouldn't expect any significant additions at the punter position.
The Patriots have no need to make any changes at long snapper, either, where Joe Cardona continues to enjoy the most job security of any Patriots long snapper since Lonie Paxton.
New England just wouldn't be New England without its core special teams players, like Justin Bethel and Cody Davis, who re-signed to multi-year deals last offseason. This year, the Patriots have a couple of more players who are almost exclusively special teams-focused, including perennial Pro Bowler and co-captain Matthew Slater. He's hinted in recent years that any year could be his last, so, retirement remains a distinct possibility for him. King, though, came back in 2021 after missing the previous two seasons with injuries. Even if Slater returns, King likely will as well.
The biggest question is what the Patriots will do with Gunner Olszewski, who turned in an All-Pro performance as a punt returner in 2020. He's now set to become a restricted free agent (RFA), but his numbers tailed off in 2021, and he's yet to contribute much as a wide receiver. New England could still offer him a tender contract, but his status with the club is far from a foregone conclusion.