It's not just lip service when a coach like Bill Belichicksays that special teams are one-third of the game of football. The Patriots pay strict attention to every facet of the game, including the situational, field-position battles that take place when special teams units take the field.
This year's group looks much the same as it did a year ago, with returning veterans Stephen Gostkowski, Chris Hanson, and Lonie Paxtonthe lone kicker, punter, and long snapper, respectively, on the roster heading into training camp. The team did bring in a couple of free agent punters during the offseason, but neither did enough to earn a ticket to camp.
Hanson, however, didn't have many chances last year (his first with New England) to show whether or not he has the booming leg to help rescue his team from poor field position. The few times he did punt were mostly in short-field situations when he simply had to knock the ball inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
Gostkowski, meanwhile, had another solid year, and Paxton is among the best at his job in the NFL. The kick coverage units retain captain and former Pro Bowler Larry Izzo, as well as Kelley Washington, Pierre Woods, Brandon Meriweather, Eric Alexander, and Kyle Eckel. And former Buffalo Bills special teams ace Sam Aiken was signed during the offseason.
The intrigue, therefore, could come in the return game.
Ellis Hobbs handled the bulk of the kickoffs last fall, finishing seventh in the NFL with a 26.0-yard average that included an NFL-record 108-yard touchdown in the season opener. This came on the heels of a 2006 campaign that saw then-rookie Laurence Maroneyend the year second in the NFL with a 28-yard average.
But with Hobbs and Maroney expected to be counted on more in their regular roles on defense and offense, the team will likely look to fill the role with a new face.
Top candidates for the kick return job include third-year wideout Chad Jackson(five returns for a 17.0 avg. last fall) along with a trio of rookie newcomers in second-round cornerback Terrence Wheatley, fourth-round cornerback Jonathan Wilhite,and fifth-round wide receiver Matthew Slater.
Wheatley has impressive speed and explosiveness, something he showed even in minicamp reps in shorts. Slater was a jack-of-all-trades at UCLA and his only real way onto the Patriots roster is through special teams, a role in which he produced to the tune of three kickoffs for a touchdown as a senior to go along with impressive work in coverage duties.
The punt return game isn't quite as up in the air, although returning top options Wes Welker(25 returns, 10.0-yard avg.) and Kevin Faulk(nine fair catches) could certainly use a youthful boost of competition. Jackson might also be in the mix for punts, although Belichick's preference for a sure-handed decision maker at the spot could land Welker and Faulk in the role once again.
Special Teams - At a glance
WR Sam Aiken (FA, Buffalo), KR/CB Terrence Wheatley (first round), KR/CB Jonathan Wilhite (fourth round), WR/KR Matthew Slater (fifth round)
Willie Andrews (released), Mel Mitchell (FA)
NO. PLAYER (POS., YEAR)
3 Stephen Gostkowski (K, 3rd year)
6 Chris Hanson (P, 10th year)
15 Kelley Washington (Cov., 6th year)
17 Chad Jackson (KR/PR, 3rd year)
18 Matthew Slater (KR, rookie)
22 Terrence Wheatley (KR, rookie)
24 Jonathan Wilhite (KR, rookie)
27 Ellis Hobbs (KR, 4th year)
31 Brandon Meriweather (Cov., 2nd year)
33 Kevin Faulk (KR/PR, 10th year)
38 Kyle Eckel (Cov., 2nd year)
52 Eric Alexander (4th year)
53 Larry Izzo (Cov., 13th year)
58 Pierre Woods (Cov., 3rd year)
66 Lonie Paxton (Cov.,9th year)
83 Wes Welker (PR/KR, 5th year)
88 Sam Aiken (Cov., 6th year)
Training camp storyline:
Who will emerge as the leading kick and punt returners?