Bill Belichick often says a player's biggest improvement comes in their second year. With a season of NFL football under their belts, players are often more comfortable and allow their abilities to take over. With that in mind we thought it would make sense to check in on several players entering Year 2 (and some others who have seen little playing time) to see how they're progressing in this strange offseason.
With just one class left to complete his Stanford University education, Jake Bailey had plans - someday - to return to campus and do so. But then the worldwide coronavirus pandemic provided him an unexpected opportunity.
With schools everywhere offering online learning as a result, the Patriots punter (who'll turn 23 this month) decided to be productive while confined at his home here in Massachusetts and enrolled in the course from afar.
"It was a blessing in disguise. I'm about to finish it up in two weeks," Bailey revealed during a phone conversation earlier this month. A few days prior, Bailey made it back to his native Southern California, where he wasted no time soaking up the Golden State's sunshine.
"The weather's been awesome," added Bailey with a chuckle. "I got sunburned yesterday. So, I'm feeling good."
It would be understandable if Bailey were basking, as well, in his impressive performance as a Patriots rookie last season. Selected by New England in the fifth round, he eventually won his job by besting incumbent veteran Ryan Allen. In only his third NFL game last September, Bailey earned the first of what would be two AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors in 2019 when he landed five of his seven punts against the New York Jets inside the 20-yard line.
Then, when veteran kicker Stephen Gostkowski went on injured reserve after only a month of action, Bailey displayed a powerful leg by assuming kickoff duties for the remainder of the season - a chore he also handled during his time at Stanford - while maintaining his regular punting responsibilities.
In addition, he held down a third job as the holder. That task came with its own challenges as the Patriots cycled through four different kickers last season, each one with his own preferences for where and how Bailey must spot the ball for them.
All the while, Bailey continued to perform at a high level. In November, he garnered his second AFC Special Teams P.O.W. award after averaging close to 48 yards on eight punts in a Patriots narrow road win at Philadelphia.
"Individual awards are always awesome," Bailey admitted. "They [are a credit to special teams co-captain] Matt Slater, [long snapper] Joe Cardona, and the rest of my punt unit, because I'm not really able to do what I do without them. Thankfully, those two weeks where I got that recognition, and the punt team got that recognition, were during wins. So, you can feel good about it, feel happy that the team is succeeding."
Bailey, though, indicated he's far from content to rest on his laurels as he enters his second NFL season. With no other punter currently on New England's roster, the job he won last season is his again in 2020, barring unforeseen events. Yet, he's intent on finding ways to motivate himself to outdo his own performance last season.
"It was obviously all new last year, and I had to compete [against Ryan Allen], and that was the best thing ever for me. As athletes, we always do better when we have competition, someone to compete against Ryan was awesome, a really good friend to me. It helped make me a better punter," Bailey explained.
"I just have to bring that same mindset going into this offseason, this coming training camp and this season, that I'm still in competition mode - with myself and with everyone else in the league. There's just not another person on the roster."
To do that, Bailey reflects on another defining, if humbling moment in his football career. As a Stanford freshman, he lost his job as the Cardinal punter. With just 10 in-game attempts that season, he averaged less than 35 yards.
"I grew tremendously from that," Bailey recalled. "I struggled and had to grow up mentally and emotionally to play on a big stage. I try to keep that attitude and not settle and keep growing. Anything can happen in this league in the blink of an eye. You always have to try to keep improving. You're in a mental game with yourself."
Toward that end, Bailey tries to investigate what other punters around the league are doing in terms of workouts and training. He also seeks advice from more experienced players, like Gostkowski, to learn from them and find areas where he can improve in all aspects of his game.
After one full season in the National Football League, Bailey is now an established veteran on the Patriots roster, albeit still a young one.
"Yeah, I have a little bit of experience," he acknowledged, "but I try and punt as confidently as possible. I tried to come to the Patriots as confident as I could be. I felt like I was able to do my job better if I felt confident. Having more game experience helps me with that confidence."
Bailey and Cardona, who is entering Year 6 of his pro career, comprise two-thirds of New England's specialist trio. If the punter, based on his time thus far in New England, can impart any wisdom to incoming rookie placekicker Justin Rohrwasser, chosen by New England - like Bailey - in Round 5, it would be this.
"It's just about putting your head down and trying to kick footballs as best you can for this team. I'm looking forward to getting to know him better and having success, the three of us, for this team."
In 2020, Bailey is also working with a new position coach. With special teams coordinator Joe Judge having left a few months ago to take over as New York Giants head coach, assistant special teams coach Cam Achord is expected to step into Judge's vacated role (as of today, there's been no official 2020 coaching assignment announcements by the Patriots).
Meanwhile, the Patriots continue their offseason workout program remotely, due to the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, and Bailey is keeping himself physically and mentally fit, even while he's on the West Coast.
"Just trying to prepare as normal and trying to make this jump to Year 2 as best as possible and improve every day. I thought  was a good starting block," he remarked about his personal effort.
"I'm a huge fan of Coach Cam. He was a great mentor, as well as Coach Judge, to me last year. Coach [Bill] Belichick always wants his players - the more you can do, is what he says. I was always happy to help with kickoffs and contribute in any way possible to make this team better. I just want to keep improving. It was a stepping block last season. Got exposed to a lot of different things, like windier conditions, colder conditions. Now, I just want to be ready for when any of those situations arise. I'm excited to see what this season brings."