Matthew Slater knows New England’s special teams has to be more consistent in 2016 than it was last year. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
1. Special teams captain Matthew Slater is almost always optimistic, and this spring, he has every reason to be. The Patriots went out and got several players in the draft and free agency that bring extensive special teams value to the table, many of whom could provide a major impact in the kicking game in 2016. After Thursday’s minicamp workout, he pointed to several new faces as potential contributors in the coming year.
“There are a ton of guys who buy into the kicking game, and I don’t think that’s the case everywhere in this league,” said Slater. “We have guys young and old alike who understand the value of the kicking game, and I think that’s an area where we’re looking to improve in this year, for sure. We have the personnel to do it. It’s just up to use as players to continue to work at our craft and continue to make the necessary sacrifices to put ourselves in position to have success.”
Slater acknowledged there were times last year where New England’s special teams unit wasn’t as successful as it had been in year’s past, and specifically pointed to the December loss to Philly. Slater pinned a sizable part of that 35-28 defeat on special teams’ breakdowns.
“I don’t think it was necessarily a personnel thing. I think there were some games where we didn’t execute. That was disappointing,” he said when asked about last year’s special teams errors. “Obviously, the Philly game comes to mind right off the bat — we felt like we cost our football team the game.
“There were some disappointing moments in the season, but I think there were some highlights. You look at a Brandon King, a guy who came out of nowhere and ended up being one of our best players. The way Nate Ebner continues to perform with consistency. The way Stephen Gostkowski plays. We had our moments, particularly in the win over the Giants where we got big plays on special teams. But for us, it’s about consistency. We have to try and reach for that level of consistency in 2016. And that starts this time of year.”
2. One other special teams note. This blog post from Lorenzo Alexander should be required reading for all those who simply dismiss gunners, returners and wedge busters as ancillary parts of the game of football. Alexander, who has made his bones as a special teamer in the NFL for the last nine years, was inspired to put together his own list of the top 10 special teamers in the league after seeing no special teamers get any sort of acknowledgement in the NFL Network’s “Top 100” list. He names the 30-year-old Slater as the best in the league, saying he’s “the best gunner in the NFL and (a) perennial Pro Bowler. Commands double and triple teams and still finds ways to make plays on punt and kickoff coverage.” For what it’s worth, with the retirement of Jerod Mayo, Slater, Gostkowski and Tom Brady are the only three players left on the roster who were drafted by the franchise prior to 2009.
3. We had the good fortune this week to catch up with Jeff Christiansen, who has worked as Jimmy Garoppolo’s personal quarterbacking tutor for the last several years. Christiansen has expanded his network over the last couple of years to include a wide variety of NFL quarterbacks, including Brock Osweiler. Osweiler and Christiansen were connected via new Miami coach Adam Gase, and when Christiansen talked about Osweiler this week after an extended stretch working with him, he was clearly impressed. “I have never met with anyone who takes the art of technique and throwing the football more seriously than Brock Osweiler,” said Christiansen. “He calls me five, six, seven times a week now and wants my opinion on clips that he sends to me. I have to tell him over and over again that he’s fine. The big question I always come back to with him? Are you better today on that route combo than you were three weeks ago? If the answer is yes, you’re OK. You are not going to go from being OK to being great. There are steps in the process, and I have never met someone so interested in hitting those steps.” Christiansen now includes a healthy number of talented young signal-callers, including Garoppolo, Osweiler, Ryan Tannehill and Kirk Cousins. He plans on being in Foxboro for September’s contest between the Patriots and the Texans — if Tom Brady’s suspension holds, it’ll be a matchup of two of his clients in Garoppolo and Osweiler. “I’ll have divided loyalties in that one,” he joked.
4. We all had a good laugh at how reticent Belichick was when it came to his press gatherings after the first two days of minicamp, but there were two notable things that stuck out from his exchange with the media after the third day of camp. First, he was asked about the value of the minicamp practices for coaches. While he had his chances to get out on the field earlier this spring in a limited capacity during OTAs, minicamp gives him and the rest of the coaches a real chance to find their form again. “It’s important for us too,” he said. “I haven’t coached since last January. I’ve been doing other things – evaluating players, working guys out, draft stuff, offseason projects and things like that. Now we’re back on the field coaching so we need to sharpen up our skills too.” And two, it was worth noting that the scouts were on hand for the minicamps, which is important, according to Belichick. “They have to go out and compare guys to what we’re doing, project them against the competition here and also project what they’ll look like doing the things that we’ve asked them to do, which they may not have been asked to do at wherever it is they’ve seen them,” Belichick said. “So I think it’s definitely helpful.”
5. There’s a natural inclination to get fired up about football at this time of the year. After all, it’s been roughly four months since we’ve seen any real action, and while players are in shells, shorts and helmets, the sight of anyone running around even at half speed on a football field is enough to get fans excited. At the same time, I’d take any sort of overly declarative, broad-brush statements with a sizable grain of salt. From this viewpoint, the spring workouts exist as a way to measure patterns, schemes, and the ability of new teammates (free agents or draftees) to mesh with others. Then, you build from there with training camp and the preseason games. That’s not to say you can’t get fired up about something — on Thursday, I joked with colleague Mike Petraglia that he needs to stop me from writing another Martellus Bennett column between now and the start of training camp. I’d only caution fans to remember that the May and June workouts are the start of a very long journey, one that will have plenty of twists and turns even before the start of the regular season.
6. While we did our best to chronicle the three minicamp sessions (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday) this week, a few Twitter followers were curious as to why we didn’t have more details when it came to line play. It’s a fair question. Honestly, it’s tough to truly judge quality line play on either side of the ball when players aren’t in pads. You want to get a sense of how players are using their hands, whether or not they’re winning individual battles and how they are meshing with players on either side of them. Simply put, you can’t really assess any of that until the pads go on and they’re going full speed. When you throw in the fact that four out of the five members of last year’s starting offensive line (Nate Solder, Tre’ Jackson, Shaq Mason and Sebastian Vollmer) were not on the field for all three sessions, it’s tough to gauge the state of the offensive line. We promise to make it come when training camp rolls around in July.
7. In the wake of the back-and-forth contract talks between Von Miller and the Broncos, this piece from Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky is pretty much spot on: We in the media need to do a better job of presenting the real dollar figures behind NFL contracts, because when you get down to it, the only thing that really matters is guaranteed money. It’s also interesting to read some of the reports coming out of Denver in regards to the situation, including this one from Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post, where the author takes the Broncos to task for the way they’re handling the negotiations.
8. So what are we to make of Wes Welker making the rounds over the last week or so as a camp visitor? The former Patriots wideout spent time with the Dolphins and Ravens, and in both instances, teams were quick to refer to him as a guest, and not a potential player. In Miami, Adam Gase quickly shot down the idea of signing him to a contract. Welker could be lobbying for one more shot, and he could also be trying to pave the way to get into coaching. (Former Pats Sammy Morris and Troy Brown were on the fields in Foxboro this week helping out.) Welker, who turned 35 last month, has had some well-documented struggles with concussions the last few years. While he could be under consideration as a pre-training camp signing, if this is it for him, he ends his career with 903 catches for 9.924 yards and 50 touchdowns, and will be the subject of a really interesting Hall of Fame debate. His 16,797 career all-purpose yards puts him 17th on the all-time list, way ahead of the likes of James Lofton, Cris Carter and Andre Reed, all of whom are in the Canton. He’s 20th on the all-time receptions list ahead of Lofton, Steve Largent and Michael Irvin, all of who have gold jackets. However, he’s 47th all-time in receiving yards, and as we wrote here, Hall voters prefer a receiver with a signature moment and/or a couple of Super Bowl rings, a department where Welker might come up lacking. Regardless, he deserves to be a part of the conversation in a few years.
9. Time for our semi-regular offseason check-in on the list of the most notable free agents who are still on the market.
Offense: quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tarvaris Jackson; running backs Arian Foster and Ahmad Bradshaw; wide receivers Anquan Boldin, James Jones, Roddy White, Andre Johnson, Brian Hartline, Andre Roberts and Welker; tight ends Scott Chandler and Owen Daniels; offensive linemen Jahri Evans, Will Beatty and Louis Vasquez.
Defense: Defensive linemen Greg Hardy, Kroy Biermann and Dwight Freeney; linebacker DeMeco Ryans; cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie, Leon Hall and Chris Culliver; safeties Donte Whitner and Brandon Meriweather.
10. Want to take a moment to acknowledge a true pro who is moving on. Globe reporter Michael Whitmer had his last day on the Patriots beat Thursday — he’ll be taking a new job in Connecticut. His smarts, good nature and professional attitude will be missed around Foxboro. Whit is a great reporter and writer, but also a really good person who earned the respect of everyone on the beat. Good luck down the road.