The job of punt returner is as important as it is specialized.
New England knows as well as any team over the years that big games can turn on punt returns – for better or worse.
So the recent run of injuries among Patriots punt returners is one of the many early-season hot topics in New England as the team prepares for its Week 2 trip to New Orleans to take on the Saints.
In fact Bill Belichick's Friday morning press conference, his final meeting with the media prior to Sunday's kickoff, was led off with a question about how the coach targets players who might be able to fill out the role, even if they don't have a history of punt return action.
"Put them back there and watch them catch them," Belichick said as only he can.
Beyond that insight, Belichick went on to field a number of questions about guys fielding punts given the fact that Cyrus Jones and Julian Edelman – two top punt return options – are already on IR with ACL injuries, while veteran Danny Amendola missed practice this week with both a concussion and knee injury. Patrick Chung finished the opener as the New England punt returner, but beyond the little-used veteran the next man up on the depth chart remains a bit uncertain.
Here are some of the highlights from Belichick's morning press conference, including practice squader Demarcus Ayers' potential as a returner, insight into the fastest players the Patriots boss has ever coached and Jacob Hollister's upside.
1. Ayers might "push for an opportunity to play":Ayers joined the Patriots practice squad Sept. 4 as a developmental option as both a receiver and a returner, two areas that have been hit by injury early in the season in New England. The 5-10, 190-pound former 2016 Steelers seventh-round pick out of Houston played in two games as a rookie in Pittsburgh, catching six passes for 53 yards and a touchdown.
Ayers not only caught 97 passes for more than 1,200 yards in his final season at Houston, but was also a very productive returner for the Cougars. His college career included 71 kickoff returns with one touchdown and 34 punt returns with another score.
"Demarcus has played inside and outside. He's returned punts. We've looked at him doing all of those things as a practice squad player," Belichick said of his short time working with the young player. "[He's] definitely making progress. They're never really ready to go in the game when they come in this league, but a lot of times they do and will based on circumstances or need or whatever. We're just trying to get him ready. He's certainly a lot more ready this week than he was last week, so if he keeps progressing then maybe he can push for an opportunity to play. He works hard. He's done everything we've asked him to do and he's gotten better at it. Our offense is a little different than the Pittsburgh offense, so there's definitely some different things that he's having to adapt to from the system that he was in. That's nobody's fault. That's just the way it is."
2. Moss, Branch, McCourty, Slater different types of Patriots speedsters:Belichick was asked what seems like a simple question Friday morning that led to a bit more complex discussion than was probably expected.
"Who is the fastest player you've ever coached?"
"It would depend on – how far are you talking about?"
Given no real parameters to work with, Belichick went on a nice description of the various types of speed he's seen over the years and how those skills relate to the football field.
"I mean, there's 60, 80 yards. That's not the most common thing in football," Belichick began. "But yeah, [Matthew] Slater at that distance, [Randy] Moss, Perry Williams. I mean, there's guys that run 30 to 40 yards and guys zero to 10. Guys that really don't have that long, top-end speed, but they have the first 20 speed. In some ways they're tougher to defend. That speed is more effective in football than 40 to 60 or 60 to 80 speed. If you're covering kicks, then you need 60-yard speed. Twenty is not really enough. They catch up to you after 20. Being able to get to top speed and I'd say being able to hold top speed, that's what a strong runner could do. He could hold it, not just get there, but actually hold it and sustain it for another 20, 30, 40 yards."
Asked if first-year Patriots receiver Brandin Cooks was one of those "in the zero to 20 range?" Belichick took the chance to praise another former New England pass catcher.
"You look at a guy like Deion Branch. He didn't have that kind of top-end speed that some receivers had, but initially off the line of scrimmage, getting into the route fast," Belichick said. "Yeah, I mean a lot of guys. [Devin] McCourty is another guy that has probably good speed at all three levels – 20, 40, 60 kind of speed, can run well at all of those spots."
3. Rookie TE Hollister "has a future":Jacob Hollister was one of just five rookie or first-year players on the Patriots opening day roster, fewest among all 32 teams. The undrafted rookie tight end out of Wyoming was inactive for the Chiefs game but as he continues to build on a solid summer and preseason his coach has seen things that he likes.
"Jake's working hard," Belichick said. "He was inactive against Kansas City, so we didn't really see much there. He's a young player with hopefully the best football ahead of him. If he continues to work hard, and improve, and get stronger, do a better job with his individual techniques and fundamentals, train well, I think he has a future. But he has a long way to go. He has a lot of work to do. He has some skill."