Patriots roster reset: Key roles up for grabs in kicking game

Andy Hart
June 18, 2020 - 11:56 am
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Over the next few weeks, as we crawl closer to the hopeful opening of Patriots training camp later this summer, WEEI.com will take a position-by-position look at the New England roster following an eventful offseason of comings and goings.

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Special Teams

Roster: LS Joe Cardona (6th year), P Jake Bailey (2nd), K Justin Rohrwasser (rookie), PR Gunner Olszewski PR Mohamed Sanu (9th), PR Julian Edelman (12th), Matthew Slater (12th), KR Brandon Bolden (9th), Justin Bethel (9th), Chase Winovich (2nd), Shilique Calhoun (5th)

Key Additions: K Justin Rohrwasser (5th round/Marshall), Adrian Phillips (FA/Chargers)

Key Losses: Special teams coach Joe Judge (Giants), Nate Ebner (FA/Giants), K Stephen Gostkowski (Cut)

Projected Starters: K Justin Rohrwasser, P Jake Bailey, LS Joe Cardona, PR Gunner Olszewski, KR Brandon Bolden

Biggest Question: Is fifth-round pick Justin Rohrwasser ready to step right into the kicking role that’s essentially been filled by All-Pros Stephen Gostkowski and Adam Vinatieri for more than two decades in New England?

Key Stat: 38 – Yards of Brandon Bolden’s longest kickoff return a year ago, one of only two players to qualify for the NFL’s kickoff return leader board who didn’t have a long return of at least 50 yards. Bolden finished tied for 10th in the NFL with a 22.4 kickoff return average.

Overview: Bill Belichick has always placed a premium on special teams play and that won’t change in 2020. That said, there will be plenty of changes to the overall kicking game in New England this fall, including Joe Judge’s departure leaving his former assistant Cam Achord to oversee the third phase. Former All-Pro kicker Stephen Gostkowski was released this offseason after a 2019 season that included an horrific start on the field before the team’s all-time points leader landed on IR due to hip surgery. Much like Gostkowski himself was asked to replace franchise legend Adam Vinatieri as a fifth-round rookie back in 2006, New England will turn the kicking duties over to another fifth-round pick in Justin Rohrwasser in 2020. The big, strong rookie out of Marshall doesn’t currently have any competition on the roster, so the job and the key role for a team that could need every point it can get in 2020 would seem to be his to lose. While kicker is a question, punter and long snapper are not. Jake Bailey had an impressive rookie season (44.9 gross average with a 41.3 net average and 36 punts down inside the 20) handling punts as well as kickoff duties. His situational work should only continue to improve, while his strong leg gives him Pro Bowl potential. And if the offense struggles in the first year post-Tom Brady, Bailey may be leaned on early and often to flip the field for his impressive defense. Joe Cardona is well entrenched on snaps, although he’ll obviously have to learn to work with a new kicker. The overall special teams units retain their elite leader in terms of coverage and blocking with Matthew Slater’s re-signing this spring. He’ll be expected to remain one of the premier gunners in the game for Bailey’s punts. The group did lose a key contributor in Nate Ebner, who signed with Judge’s Giants, but that could be balanced out with the addition of Adrian Phillips. The safety was an All-Pro special teams contributor for the Chargers a couple years ago and should become a core player in the kicking game in New England. Justin Bethel returns as a proven veteran contributor who might be able to pick up any slack if Slater begins to show his age. Another big question for the Patriots is the return game. The team doesn’t have an obvious, productive, proven option for either punts or kicks. Clearly there is no desire to use Julian Edelman in that role. A year ago undrafted rookie Gunner Olszewski was gutsy and competitive before landing on IR, leaving the team to essentially forgo punt returns over the second half of the season. Brandon Bolden was lackluster at best on kickoff returns, though that role is greatly diminished by modern NFL rules. For a Patriots team with plenty of questions about its offense in 2020, seeing the return duties go to more potentially explosive options this fall might be appealing. Overall, though, expect Belichick to do whatever is necessary in terms of both specialists and scheme to keep his special teams unit among the NFL’s best to follow up a 2019 campaign that included four blocked punts, with two returned for touchdowns. The kicking game has always been key in New England and that may be even truer in 2020.

Power Rating (1-5): ***

With a first-year kicker, second-year punter and uncertainty at both returner spots, New England has a lot of moving parts at key spots in the kicking game heading into 2020. But Pro Bowler Matthew Slater still brings elite leadership to the group which will remain a key factor in New England’s weekly game plans this fall.

Related: Patriots roster reset: Does CB group have what it takes to continue to be elite?