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Patriots training camp countdown — No. 6: How can Bill Belichick fix his woeful special teams? – Boston Herald

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Welcome to 10 Patriots training camp questions!
Each day leading up to the start of camp, the Herald will explore one of the biggest questions facing the Pats this summer. Several pertain to the defense, which lost longtime starters J.C. Jackson, Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower this offseason. Other questions cover the offense and coaching staff, which underwent a major makeover after Josh McDaniels left for Las Vegas.
Once the Patriots hit the practice field, here’s what they must learn before the season kicks off at Miami Sept. 11.
No. 10: Who are the top breakout candidates?
No. 9: Who will lead the offensive coaching staff?
No. 8: Can Cole Strange live up to his first-round billing?
No. 7: Who are the UDFAs most likely to make the roster?
The NFL’s best special teams are often like its best referees.
Silent and steady.
If a special teams unit finds itself in the spotlight, it’s typically for the wrong reasons. And last year, the Patriots were a moth to the media flame.
The Pats allowed three blocked punts and finished with a below-average ranking by Football Outsiders’ DVOA and Rick Gosselin’s famed special teams rankings, an annual media analysis that even Bill Belichick reads. After ranking first by both metrics in 2020, the Patriots ranked 19th and 18th, respectively last season. Special teams coordinator Cam Achord frequently threw himself in front of public criticism, but it was clear to anyone watching that blame deserved to be spread around.
“You have to emphasize the blocking,” Achord said after the team’s third allowed block punt in December. “Those guys on the inside have to protect, and I have to make sure they understand that. I have to do a better job with coaching that. And the guys on the outside, the gunners, they are out there to cover. That’s the main priority.”
Most of the Pats’ breakdowns could be traced to faulty fundamentals and communication. The nature of those problems is bittersweet. They should’ve been avoided in the moment, but are easily correctable moving forward.
The Patriots believe they can remedy those issues in 2022 through a renewed focus on the basics. Some fresh blood should help, too.
Fullback Jakob Johnson was seemingly at fault on the last block allowed at Indianapolis. He’s now in Las Vegas with Brandon Bolden, another former core special teamer. The Pats also parted ways with Brandon King, who played on the punt and kick coverage teams exclusively.
During free agency, the front office signed free-agent veteran Ty Montgomery, a hybrid running back/receiver who’s lost most of his explosion. Montgomery’s biggest contributions should come on special teams, where he’s taken at least 40 percent of his team’s snaps each of the past three years. Montgomery is expected to join longtime special teams studs Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel and Cody Davis as parts of the team’s new core.
Belichick likes him.
Patriots announce new coaching titles for Matt Patricia, Joe Judge

Speaking about the Saints last September, Belichick said: “I would say also that Sean (Payton) has a number of players on his team that do multiple things. A guy like Montgomery who has been a kick returner or a receiver or running back. He’s a good blocker. He can do a lot of different things.”
The Pats also targeted several undrafted rookie free agents who starred on kick and punt coverage units in college. Texas product Brendan Schooler and former Purdue linebacker DaMarcus Mitchell both started on the punt team in minicamp. Projecting Schooler and/or Mitchell to make the final 53-man roster is far from fantasy, given Belichick's love of special teams and their impressive college tape.
The Patriots have also hit on undrafted free agents before. See: Bolden and King. Not to mention a few draft picks — including Slater, a potential future Hall of Famer — which leads us to their third-round selection this year, an all-time college returner.
Houston cornerback/return man Marcus Jones tied the NCAA record for most career return touchdowns. He lit up opposing kick and punt coverage units, forcing coaches to install entirely new coverages to account for him, a 5-foot-8 dynamo. According to sources, the Pats are eager to see how Jones adapts to NFL speed once teams are permitted to put the pads on.
The Patriots have ranked among the league's least threatening kick return teams by DVOA the past three seasons.
Beyond bodies coming in and out, the Pats can fairly expect more from punter Jake Bailey, whose performance dipped after an All-Pro campaign in 2020. Bailey has already demonstrated an immense ceiling, and every player — even those entering their theoretical prime — suffer from down seasons. He'll compete with undrafted rookie punter Jake Julien in training camp.
Though if minicamp was any indication, when Bailey boomed punts with a hang time of more than five seconds, he's headed for a bounce-back.
Just like the rest of the Patriots' special teams.
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