FOXBORO -- For a team that traditionally has placed such a sizable emphasis on special teams, the Patriots’ lack of a consistent presence at the kick return spot over the last five seasons is puzzling.
In 2008, Ellis Hobbs averaged 28.5 yards per return, second best in the NFL (45 returns, 1,281 yards). But since Hobbs was dealt to the Eagles after that season, New England has been unable to find a long-term solution at the position. There have been occasional bursts of brilliance -- including the astounding run late last season by LeGarrette Blount, who averaged 29.1 yards per return in just 17 chances -- but relatively no year-to-year continuity.
Since the start of the 2009 season, 22 different players have returned at least one kick for the Patriots, but no one has been able to provide the consistent support that Hobbs -- who averaged 27.7 yards per return and had three touchdowns with New England -- did over the course of his four-year career with the Patriots.
-- 2009: Laurence Maroney, 21.5 yards per return (13 returns, 279 yards)
-- 2010: Brandon Tate, 25.9 yards per return, sixth-best in the NFL (41 returns, 1,057 yards)
-- 2011: Danny Woodhead, 21.9 yards per return, 25th in the NFL (20 returns, 437 yards)
-- 2012: Devin McCourty, 24.2 yards per return, 13th in the NFL (27 returns, 654 yards)
-- 2013: LeGarrette Blount, 29.1 yards per return (17 returns, 494 yards -- Blount’s lack of chances -- he needed at least 20 to be considered among the qualifiers -- left him off the list.)
More often than not, the returners have fallen into one of three roles: One, a part-timer who has far greater value to the team at another spot to risk using him extensively as a return man (McCourty). Two, a one-dimensional speedster who can’t do much more than run fast in a straight line and offers little to no value in other areas (Tate). And an offensive skill position guy who ends up drawing the short straw and gets a chance to jump into the mix (Woodhead, Maroney).
Since Blount left as a free agent in the offseason, several players have taken their shot along the back line, a group that includes Shane Vereen, Matthew Slater, Josh Boyce and Roy Finch. None of them have stood out in any form or fashion, and heading into the third preseason contest of the summer this week against the Panthers, the job appears to be wide open for 2014.
Earlier this week, Patriots coach Bill Belichick offered a thumbnail breakdown of just what he looks for at that position.
“Definitely, vision is important,” Belichick said. “Speed is important, because the faster you can get the ball from the goal line or wherever it comes down up into that 15-, 20-yard line area, then the more you can avoid that outside guy, whoever it is. You can’t really block everybody.
“Well, you can, but once you start double teaming to create running lanes then you run out of blockers and you try to let somebody go -- usually the backside guy, the guy farthest from the ball, that type of thing. So, fast guys can get past them before they’re able to come down and make the play. So, speed and then either some combination of quickness and power to break tackles.”
While a good return can break down if it’s not blocked properly, a good returner can make something happen even if he doesn’t get support from his teammates, according to Belichick.
“Somehow or another, returners -- to be good -- have to be able to make some yards on their own,” he said. “They have to be able to avoid [tackles] or be strong to run through them, as well as have good vision and find the holes.”
From an outsiders perspective, it’s easy to think all return work requires the same basic skill set. Using that reasoning, the Patriots should simply utilize Julian Edelman -- who has carved out a niche as one of the best punt returners in the history of the league -- as a kick returner as well.
But Belichick said it’s not that easy.
“Kickoff return is a little different than punt returns, because you have so many guys coming down at the same time and you have a chance to generally build some momentum, build some speed and create on the run,” he said. “Whereas a lot of times on punt returns, they’re right there on top of you, you have to make a quick decision. There’s only two guys down there so usually the gunners -- unless the ball has a lot of hang time -- but there’s usually that first wave of just two guys or however many of them get down there and then you have that second wave.
“So, the ball handling is quite a bit different, I’d say harder, on punts. Certainly the decision making once you get into plus-50 punting and things like that are a little bit different other than making the come out of the end zone or not come out of the end zone [decision] on kick returns. There aren’t a lot of guys in the league that do both. There certainly are some, but there are quite a few guys that do one or the other, because the skills really are a little bit different.”
While the Patriots have struggled to find consistency, you can make the argument that last year’s movement of the kickoff to the 35-yard line has effectively neutered the role of kick returner. But even with the rule changes and the increased touchbacks, there still were dynamic kick returners in 2013. Minnesota’s Cordarrelle Patterson averaged a league-best 32.4 yards per return and took two back for touchdowns. Dwayne Harris of Dallas and Quintin Demps of Kansas City both averaged over 30 yards per return. (In fact, 2013 was the first year since 2007 when the league saw multiple players average more than 30 yards per return.) And while he started slowly -- pun intended -- Blount finished with a flourish in his only season with the Patriots, including two returns for a combined 145 yards in the regular-season finale against the Bills.
Going forward, there’s always the possibility the Patriots could rely on a familiar face like McCourty, especially if they found themselves in a pinch. (Although using one of your most important defenders as a kick returner is debatable, the Patriots have never been shy about pressing key players into special teams roles.) And even though Blount emerged as the go-to kick returner of choice down the stretch, over the course of the preseason he only had one chance to show what he could do. That means there could be someone out there who could end up filling the bill.
As of this point, there appear to be three serious candidates for the job in 2014: Finch, Slater and Boyce.
-- Despite a fumble on a kickoff in the first preseason game against the Redskins, Finch showed a good level of quickness, speed and field vision. He had a pair of returns and averaged 26 yards in Friday’s game against the Eagles, and the undrafted free agent could use a special teams role as an entry point onto the 53-man roster. (Rookie Jeremy Gallon also is a possibility, but he has been banged up over the summer and hasn’t really had a chance to show what he can do.)
-- Slater is a special teams ace who has the requisite speed and smarts, and his field vision has been honed by working on special teams for years. (He’s worked as a part-time returner for several years and had his best season in 2009 when he returned 11 kicks for an average of 24.5 yards.)
-- Boyce has the speed and strength, and while he returned nine kicks for the Patriots (second to Blount) for a respectable average of 23.8 yards per return he never really seemed to click in his rookie season, which ended with a foot injury in December. Maybe 2014 could be a different story for the TCU product, who likely needs to show some special teams value going forward if he wants to maintain a spot on the 53-man roster.
Regardless, finding long-term consistency in the kicking game would provide a boost for a Patriots team that has grown used to mostly diminished returns over the last five years, and provide another edge for a team looking for any extra help when it comes to breaking through against the rest of the NFL’s elite. And if all else fails, maybe they turn to an offensive linemen who displayed a knack for it in the past?