To explain how important special teams are to Belichick, consider this: In recent years, he's had, on top of his specialists, as many as five players who play primarily or exclusively on special teams on the game day roster, let alone the 53-man roster.
Moreover, in 2010, the Patriots gave kicker Stephen Gostkowski the biggest contract signed by a kicker or punter outside of Oakland: Gostkowski's four-year, $14 million deal runs through 2014, and gives him $5 million guaranteed. And, oh yeah, before Gostkowski, the Patriots had some dude named Adam Vinatieri kicking for them.
Danny Aiken, Stephen Gostkowski, Zoltan Mesko
How confident are the Patriots in Stephen Gostkowski? Gostkowski won the kicking competition against Martin Gramática in 2006. His rehab from a 2010 quad injury forced the Patriots to bring in an extra kicker to reduce his training camp workload in 2011. Between those two, Gostkowski had no competition at all.
Despite the merry-go-round that was the punter position, the Pats saw no need to bring in anyone to push the Ghost. And while his inevitable misses drive some Patriots fans crazy, he is still the most accurate kicker in Patriots history, and has one of the most powerful kickoffs in the NFL: In a 2009 game against the Dolphins, he kicked a touchback through the end zone from the Patriots' 25 (after an offside penalty).
After years of mediocre punting, the Patriots seem to finally have their punter of the future in left-footed Zoltan Mesko, the Most Interesting Man in the NFL. He set an NFL rookie record for punting average, and had an outstanding season in 2011, with 24 punts downed inside the 20 and just three touchbacks in 57 attempts. To borrow a phrase seen on Patriots fan T-shirts: The Patriots don't punt often—but when they do, they prefer Zoltan Mesko.
When Josh McDaniels left New England for Denver, he signed away long snapper Lonie Paxton, viewed as one of the best in the game. The Patriots thought they had a replacement in Jake Ingram, and in 2009 Ingram played well. But, apparently, in trying to adjust Ingram's mechanics in 2010, something went awry, and he was cut in mid-season. The Patriots finally settled on an undrafted rookie, Danny Aiken, a cast-off from the Bills, and haven't looked back since.
Despite all the potential backups at all three positions (Chad Ochocinco can kick, as can Wes Welker; Tom Brady can punt, and Rob Ninkovich can be a long snapper), none of the three seem to be in any danger of losing their jobs.
Projected Offensive Skill Positions Total: 16 (see Part 1 of this series)
Projected Offensive Linemen: 9 (see Part 2 of this series)
Projected Defensive LinemenlLinebackers: 15 (see Part 3 of this series)
Projected Defensive Secondary: 10 (see Part 4 of this series)
ST (3): Aiken, Gostkowski, Mesko
Coming this weekend: a final look at the "current" 53-man roster, including the "bubble" players.