By: Steve Balestrieri
With the NFL Draft finally approaching the New England Patriots will be looking to upgrade and deepen their roster for the upcoming 2014 season. While the debate rages on about which direction they will look to first, one area of the team appears set, at least for the time being with the players already on the roster. And that is the kick and punt return positions. In a very solid Special Teams unit, the team looks to be solid there.
At the end of each season Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News puts out a Special Teams report card, measuring all 32 teams in 22 different categories and the Patriots ended up the #1 ranking team in the league.
Gosselin’s piece can be found here, and states this about Bill Belichick and his special teams acumen:
“It’s no surprise that the Patriots finished No. 1. Bill Belichick spent his first four seasons in the NFL as a special teams coach with Detroit, Denver and the Giants from 1976-79. So he knows and appreciates a quality kicking game.”
Julian Edelman returns with a new contract as a WR/PR and put up career numbers in 2013 as a receiver with 105 catches for 1056 yards, cementing a tight rapport and trust factor he has with QB Tom Brady. Edelman finally put it all together last season, staying healthy and providing a much needed target underneath for the Patriots offense.
Edelman didn’t have the normal explosion in the punt return game that we’ve come to expect in 2013 but still put up respectable numbers with 35 returns for 374 yards, good for a 10.7 yard average with a long return of 43 yards.
Pat McAfee, the punter for the Indianapolis Colts stated on the NFL Network earlier this spring that he believes that Edelman will go down as the best punt returner in NFL history with his speed, quickness in changing direction and ability to make opponents miss.
With last year’s rookie receivers having a year’s experience under their belts, as well as having Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski back healthy should take a lot of pressure off Edelman to recreate those numbers in the passing game and his contributions to the punt return game should improve in 2014.
Last season the only other punt returned other than Edelman was done by Amendola although Vereen could be tasked with that in an emergency situation as well.
Josh Boyce should take the reins as the primary kick returner in 2014. As a rookie last season, Boyce chipped in with 9 kick-off returns totaling 214 yards for a 23.8 average backing up LaGarrette Blount who has since moved on to Pittsburgh in free agency.
Boyce’s numbers were quite similar to those of Blount until his Week 17 explosion against the Buffalo Bills. He was drafted in the 4th round (102nd pick overall) of the 2013 NFL Draft. His initial progress was slowed due to a foot injury which caused him to miss some of the early mini-camp sessions.
His contributions on the field were rather limited on offense with only 9 catches for 121 yards in 2013, but he served a valuable role during the year acting as the scout team’s wide receiver, playing the role of many of the Patriots foes.
But with a fast timed 40 speed of 4.38 and an impressive three-cone drill of 6.68, Boyce has all of the characteristics of a good return man in the NFL. Now he just has to put it all together on the field. He’ll be starting healthy this time and will be looking to contribute on offense as well, probably as the “Z” wide receiver.
Also returning kicks in 2013 were Devin McCourty, special team’s ace Matthew Slater and Shane Vereen. All will undoubtedly get in some work there as well but this is a position for Boyce to win early in the game.
One dark-horse to watch in this positional battle is WR Reggie Dunn. Dunn was originally signed by the Steelers as an UDFA in 2013, he spent time on the Steelers, Packers and Browns before being picked up by the Patriots.
Dunn, a small WR at 5’9, 178 possesses outstanding straight line speed, running a blistering 4.25 in his Utah Pro-Day and returned five kickoffs of over 100 yards for touchdowns in his college career.
What doesn’t bode well for Dunn is the log-jam at the wide receiver position. If he were to stick, would the Patriots opt to keep another wide receiver on the roster? It remains to be seen. With Edelman, Amendola and Brandon Lafell all on the receiving end of good money this season and Boyce and Aaron Dobson being high draft picks in 2013, those five players have to be considered near locks for the roster. Factor in Slater being classified as a WR, and there are six wide outs being locked in.
But that will ultimately depend on Dunn, if he can shine during the spring mini-camps and carry that over into training camp, he may find himself with a roster slot. Regardless, the Patriots find themselves in a good position in the return game in 2014.
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