The Patriots' success has typically been attributed to a few key people; Tom Brady, Tedy Bruschi, Wes Welker and so on. Sometimes Bill Belichick gets the credit, but rarely do we think of special teams as the key -- with the exception of perhaps Adam Vinatieri's clutch winter kicking. Special teams are a bigger part of New England's plan than you may realize.
Special teams are comprised of some of the most crucial and yet overlooked players of a team.
Not nearly as illustrious as the wide receivers or quarterbacks, members of the special teams are still expected to play at an elevated level of accuracy and consistency, no matter what. Placekickers, long snappers and punters are necessary for every team, but not every team will use a valuable Draft pick for any of these necessities.
The New England Patriots are the exception.
Recognizing how these positions impact the offense and defense, Bill Belichick never hesitate in choosing a prospect in each of these positions if they player is truly special. In fact, the Patriots are the only team in the league in the last 10 years to draft a player in the placekicker, long snapper and punter positions.
Placekickers, Long Snappers and Punters
In the 2006 Draft, the Patriots selected Memphis alum Stephen Gostkowski at 118th overall to take on the placekicking duties from one of the most effective and clutch kickers in NFL history, Adam Vinatieri. In the sixth round of the 2009 Draft, New England selected the Jake Ingram from Hawaii. Ingram, unrivaled at his position in college football, was also the only long snapper to be drafted that year. And just last month, New England used their 150th pick overall in the 2010 Draft on Michigan standout punter Zoltan Mesko.
Each of these players, draw high expectations to make an immediate impact, even at the beginning of their rookie years.
Adam Vinatieri's departure in 2006 to the Indianapolis Colts left the Patriots with no other option but to find a kicker that was either as good as Vinatieri, or at least can eventually become as good. Stephen Gostkowski has yet to disappoint. Since his first season, Gostkowski has made 103 out of 121 kicks, garnering an impressive 85.1 field goal percentage. Even more fascinating is the fact that Gostkowski has made 99.5 percent of all of his extra point attempts.
Not bad for the fourth round pick.
Lonie Paxton played in New England for nine seasons and due to free agency, chose to continue his career with the Denver Broncos where he signed a five-year $5.3 million contract. This left a vacancy for the Patriots and an interesting prospect from Hawaii proved to be the solution. Jake Ingram from Hawaii originally played defensive end until his former head coach offered a full athletics scholarship to the university on the condition that Ingram moved from defense to special teams. Switching from playing defensive end to being the Warriors' vital long snapper. Ingram agreed hesitantly at first, but his skills soon were evident and he quickly became the best long snapper, at the time, in college football. During Ingram's rookie year, the sixth round pick was perfect on all of his 134 snaps. If Ingram can maintain his consistency, he may just be the Patriots' long snapper for many years to come.
In the fifth round of the 2010 Draft, a punter with a Romanian heritage and an intriguing name was selected. Zoltan Mesko from Michigan was the top ranked punter in the Draft was selected 150th overall by the Patriots. The lefty kicker has notable leg strength and a larger build that allows him more control in times of inclement weather that is all too familiar in New England. Mesko, although already popular with fans, is not guaranteed the punter position.
Another rookie, in some sense, also wants the job.
David King, a 28 year old Australian punter was signed by the Patriots and is also competing for the spot on the roster. King, unlike Mesko, is still learning the fundamentals of American football and considers being signed by the Patriots, "..just a dream."
The shaky performance of punter Chris Hanson has resulted in him becoming a free agent. Hanson's departure paved the way for Mesko and King to compete for punting duties for the Patriots.
The placekicker, long snapper and punter positions for the Patriots seem to be set for now, at least until the regular season begins and the final roster is released. There is another position that also requires a specialist and for quite some time, has been a struggling area for New England.
The Missing Specialist
With the 27th overall pick, Patriots chose Devin McCourty, a speedy cornerback from Rutgers. The majority of his collegiate career, McCourty was solid at the cornerback position and recorded 238 total tackles and four forced fumbles along with five fumble recoveries. From McCourty's showing at the recent Patriots rookie camp, his skills also translate to the special teams department. As a kick/punt returner at Rutgers, McCourty averaged 27.91 return yards per kick. McCourty shined on all other aspects of the special teams as well. The Rutgers alum had six blocked punts, a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and one blocked field goal attempt. All of this was just too much for Bill Belichick to overlook.
The Patriots have struggled to find a return specialist since the departure of Ellis Hobbs to the Philadelphia Eagles. As of last season, return duties were rotated between wide receivers such as Julian Edelman, Wes Welker, Matthew Slater, Sam Aiken and Brandon Tate. Although Edelman, who returned 11 kickoffs for 241 yards along with Slater who managed 22 returns for 424 yards, showed success as returners, there is no definite return specialist on the New England team.
Perhaps, Devin McCourty can make kick and punt returns one of his specialties.
Special teams for the New England Patriots is no small matter. Bill Belichick has proven his affinity for finding integral specialists in each of the key positions on the special teams squad. The Patriots have not always found the most success when it comes to the Draft, but the select few, the specialists, have shown to have the most success and longevity under the Bill Belichick system. In time, perhaps Mesko, King and McCourty will prove to be some of the select few.
Kisha Tapangan covers the NFL and the New England Patriots for PatriotsInsider.com. To read more of her material, visit her blog at www.nrwithkisha.com . Follow Kisha on Twitter: @KishaT
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