The Patriots have always placed more emphasis on special teams than some other clubs around the league. Cases in point: this year, a pair of Pats finished first and second for the All-Pro special teamer spots, and Bill Belichick referred to punter Johnny Hekker as one of the best players on the Rams, calling him "a tremendous weapon" and "as good a player as I've ever seen at that position." So, it goes without saying that New England wants to be #1 every year in special teams. While they're not at their goal yet, they got a lot closer, moving up six spots in special-teams expert Rick Gosselin's annual special-teams rankings.
Belichick himself has said that Gosselin is his special-teams ranker of choice, and he should be happy with the Patriots #6 finish overall for the 2016 season. While it would be nice to be at the top, this also represents a return to New England's traditional upper echelon. The Pats came in at #3 in 2014, and claimed the top spot in both the 2013 and 2010 seasons. After a relatively down year by Belichickian standards (#11 last year), Joe Judge's unit appears to be getting right back on track.
There's even more hope for the future. While ace Matthew Slater is now 31 and only getting older, Nate Ebner had by far the best season of his career (racking up 19 tackles and 12 All-Pro votes), and young players Brandon King and Jonathan Jones stepped up in the spotlight. Athletic linebacker Shea Mcclellin blocked an extra point this year and could do it again, while dynamo Dion Lewis will return next year as well--unfortunately for him, the playoffs weren't evaluated, so hopefully he can repeat his kick-return magic sometime between Weeks 1 and 17.
We'll have to wait and see if the Patriots make any special-teams signings in free agency, but for now, the squad is looking good going into the 2017 season. Hopefully the improvement trend continues throughout the next year.
Photo courtesy New England Patriots
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