September 27, 2021

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Patriots’ most valuable rookie has been … punter…

8 min read
Patriots' most valuable rookie has been ... punter...

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1a. Unexpected choice for Patriots’ most valuable rookie: At the quarter mark of the NFL season, the Patriots’ most valuable rookie has been … punter Jake Bailey? A strong case can be made for Bailey as the pick, which is unusual for a 4-0 team.

Bailey has punted 22 times, posting a 45.9 average and 42.7 net, with just one touchback and 10 punts inside the 20. The 22 punts are fourth most in the NFL, as he has also helped shift field position when the offense has been pinned deep.

Bailey’s value to the Patriots increases this week because of his ability to handle kickoffs, which Bill Belichick said was part of the reason he initially won the job over incumbent Ryan Allen (2013-2018). Bailey’s versatility to kick off (he did it for three seasons at Stanford) has helped ease the team’s burden of replacing Stephen Gostkowski, who was placed on injured reserve Tuesday because of a left hip injury.

So when the Patriots worked out seven kickers last week, they focused solely on field goals, according to those involved in the workouts. They didn’t work on kickoffs, knowing they had Bailey already as an option.

Some chuckled when Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio traded up five spots in the fifth round to select Bailey with the 163rd overall pick. But giving up a seventh-round pick to ensure Bailey landed in New England has been one of the team’s shrewdest decisions of the year.

“He’s been really valuable,” noted veteran safety Patrick Chung. “He’s been booming the ball, putting it in the perfect spot, giving us good field position. For a young guy, he’s very mature, very professional. Hopefully he can keep it up.”

1b. Opportunities for rookies haven’t been plentiful: Another reason Bailey has arguably been the Patriots’ top rookie is opportunity. Receiver N’Keal Harry (first round) has opened the season on injured reserve along with guard Hjalte Froholdt (fourth round), while cornerback Joejuan Williams (second round) and running back Damien Harris (third round) are buried on the depth chart and haven’t played a single snap. Offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste (third round) remains on the non-football injury list and defensive tackle Byron Cowart (fifth round) has appeared in just one game (16 snaps). Outside of Bailey, the rookies who have played the most are outside linebacker Chase Winovich (third round), who has excelled as a situational pass-rusher (87 snaps), and undrafted free-agent receiver Jakobi Meyers (61 snaps), who has three catches for 60 yards.

2. Gostkowski’s future in New England uncertain: When following the money involved, the possibility that Gostkowski has played his last game for the Patriots is on the radar after he landed on injured reserve last week (left hip). His base salary jumps from $1.1 million to $3.5 million next season, a figure the Patriots will likely take a long look at when considering the 35-year-old Gostkowski will be coming off surgery and a four-game stretch in which he missed four extra points. At the least, the club figures to aggressively explore kicker options in the draft, which would be the first time that’s happened since 2006, when the club selected Gostkowski in the fourth round — a pick necessitated by Adam Vinatieri‘s free-agent departure to the Colts.

3. Bennett’s lighter load stands out: A few notable nuggets from playing-time statistics at the quarter mark of the season:

  • Defensive end Michael Bennett has played 40% of the snaps, which is mostly a result of varied game plans featuring more linebackers, so his primary value has come as a situational pass-rusher. The expectation is that number rises as the season progresses. There is also perhaps a consideration of pacing for the 33-year-old Bennett, with the entire season in mind.

  • Linebacker Jamie Collins, at 77.4%, has the highest playing-time total of any front-seven defender. His return has been a smashing success.

  • Second-year tight end Ryan Izzo has been on the field for 60% of the snaps, which is much higher than projected and could be reduced sharply if veteran Benjamin Watson is added to the lineup when he returns from suspension.

  • Fill-in center Ted Karras is the only Patriot to play every snap.

4. McDermott’s initial response warranted a follow-up: One can understand Bills coach Sean McDermott’s strong initial reaction to the hit by Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones last Sunday that knocked out Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen; he said immediately after the game that there was no place in football for a play like that. McDermott, or any coach for that matter, can seldom go wrong by showing support for their players in the aftermath of a hard-fought game. But I was disappointed at McDermott’s lack of a follow-up the next day after he had a chance to rewatch the play — which clearly wasn’t malicious — as he deflected a question on the topic by saying he was moving forward. On Saturday, it was learned that the NFL didn’t fine Jones on the play. If McDermott still truly believes there’s no place in football for plays like that after watching the film, the Bills — who seem to have a good thing going with McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane — are in more trouble than I thought.

5. Watson’s spot with Patriots not yet locked in: The Patriots have until 4 p.m. ET on Monday to activate Watson to their roster. That is when the roster exemption they have for Watson expires as he returns from a four-game NFL suspension. The idea that the Patriots would activate Watson seemed to be a given, but with Watson not traveling with the team to Washington for Sunday’s game, it pushes the decision to the brink and sparks a question as to why the club wouldn’t have Watson on the field at the earliest possible time. After all, they badly need help at tight end. Watson, who suffered a concussion in the preseason, has told those close him that he is healthy; he wasn’t on the field for Wednesday’s full-pads practice, but was present at the media-access portion of practices Thursday and Friday. So perhaps the Patriots are simply playing it safe with the 38-year-old Watson, knowing they have a quick turnaround next week with a Thursday home game against the Giants. Or maybe Watson’s spot on the team isn’t as secure as it once seemed. As they say, stay tuned.

6. McClaurin would have been ideal Patriot: When the Patriots were on the clock with the 73rd pick in this year’s draft, they had a decision to make: Keep the pick or trade it to the Bears as part of a package that included a selection 14 spots later in the round in addition to a 2020 fourth-rounder. The trade offered great value, unless there was a player the Patriots felt especially strong about at No. 73. One of their top considerations will be on the opposite sideline Sunday — Ohio State receiver Terry McLaurin. The Redskins picked McLaurin at No. 76, and he’s been one of the NFL’s best rookies through a quarter of the season. Part of what made him a top prospect was off-the-charts intangibles and special-teams excellence — things the Patriots value greatly. “He doesn’t play like a rookie at all,” Patriots cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino said.

7. Pellegrino — from Johns Hopkins lacrosse to Patriots: Pellegrino, the Patriots’ first-year cornerbacks coach, initially joined the organization as a football operations intern in 2015 after playing lacrosse at Johns Hopkins, where he was a two-time All-American. So how does a college lacrosse player become an assistant football coach on Belichick’s staff? The link, according to Pellegrino, is Johns Hopkins lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala, who is a close friend of Belichick’s. “I’ve always been a football guy my whole life,” said Pellegrino, who graduated in 2015. “And when I walked in the building, I just did as much as I could to help around.”

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