In the lead-up to 2020 training camp, we're inspecting the Patriots roster position by position. Today, an examination of the special teams.
Locks: Joe Cardona (LS); Jake Bailey (P/KO); Matthew Slater (Coverage); Justin Bethel (Coverage); Justin Rohrwasser (K, rookie)
Bubble: Gunner Olszewski (PR); Brandon King (Coverage); Brandon Bolden (Returner/Coverage)
In the Mix: Kyle Dugger (PR, rookie); Cassh Maluia (Coverage, rookie)
ANALYSIS: We haven't even seen this year's Patriots on the field together yet, but it seems the club already has its kicking trio on solid footing (pun intended). Veteran long snapper Joe Cardona leads this group, followed closely by second-year punter/kickoff specialist Jake Bailey, who's coming off a promising rookie season. Rookie Justin Rohrwasser, a fifth-round draft choice this year, currently has no competition on the 90-man roster, so, it would appear the job is his. And even if a veteran were brought in, the Patriots typically don't draft a specialist without keeping him on the active roster that same season. Barring unforeseen events, Rohrwasser will be booting placekicks. What'll be interesting is to see whether he or Bailey winds up kicking off.
Meantime, long-time co-captain Matthew Slater returns for a 13th season in Foxborough and should provide dependable leadership for the "core four" coverage units: kickoff, kickoff return, punt, and punt return. Likewise, Justin Bethel has proven to be one of the league's best kicking game specialists and will pair well once again with Slater.
Brandon King is another stalwart special teamer, but coming off a season-ending quadriceps muscle injury in 2019, he could face a serious threat from any number of newcomers like 2020 draft choice Cassh Maluia. The latter appears to fit the prototypical profile of a young Patriots special teams contributor.
Multi-faceted ninth-year vet Brandon Bolden always seems to be on the periphery this time of year, but finds a way to stick around. With the free agent exit of Nate Ebner, Bolden might be safe, but rest assured, younger players will be at his heels.
Elsewhere, the return game is another area with some intrigue. As a rookie last season, Gunner Olszewski took many observers by pleasant surprise with his gritty efforts as the team's primary punter return before he, too, was lost midseason with ankle and hamstring issues. While Olszewski will look to stick around as a wide receiver first and foremost, he could be challenged for the punt return gig by top 2020 draft pick Kyle Dugger (a lock, by the way, the make the squad as a safety).
Who will return kickoffs is another question that needs answering this summer, and the competition could be wide open. Kickoff returns are becoming fewer and farther between throughout the league, but New England could still try to improve their production in this category. It'll be worth watching who gets opportunities and who takes advantage of them in August.