Signed: Ryan Allen, Stephen Gostkowski
Free Agent: Danny Aiken
One bad snap that sailed over punter Ryan Allen in the AFC divisional playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts might be the only obvious mistake made by the Patriots special teams in 2013. After being flawless through the regular season, long snapper Danny Aiken was off target, resulting in a safety.
Though Aiken is a free agent, he’s likely to return. But it wouldn’t be surprising if competition is brought in. The Patriots once changed long snappers three years in a row from 2009 through 2011 (Jake Ingram, Matt Katula, Aiken). Aiken just finished his third year with New England, but his return isn’t a lock.
Other than that, special teams was great for the Patriots. In his first year Allen out-performed Zoltan Mesko’s 2012 numbers in average (45.9 yards per punt vs. 43.1) and net (39.9 yards per punt vs. 37.9). Allen needs to improve his touch, though. His touchbacks doubled Mesko’s 2012 numbers (12 vs. 6).
Allen’s big leg helped the punt coverage team limit opponents to 7.6 yards per return, ninth in the NFL. Kickoff returns were even better, as New England allowed 20.4 yards, sixth in the league. It’s why Matthew Slater was selected for the Pro Bowl for the third straight year. Honorable mention goes to Nate Ebner who recovered two fumbles in 2013.
The other specialist that played in Hawaii was kicker Stephen Gostkowski, an alternate after Denver's Matt Prater was unable to participate. Gostkowski missed just three kicks all season (two from 40-49 yards) and was 5-of-6 from 50 yards or more. He was excellent on kickoff returns too, as opponents had just 32 returns.
New England’s big question is: Who will be their returners? Leon Washington, signed as a free agent to return punts and kickoffs, was released before the season opener.
Receiver Julian Edelman (10.7 yards per return on punts, fourth in the NFL for returners with at least 30 punt returns) and running back LeGarrette Blount (29.1 yards per return on kickoffs) are both free agents and should draw attention for their full time roles.
Edelman probably would reprise his role if New England re-signs him, but if Blount returns as the starter, the Patriots should find someone else to return kickoffs.
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