As dramatic as the Patriots' makeover of their secondary has been this offseason, an even larger change has taken place on its special teams units.
Long time special teams coach Brad Seely is gone, replaced by Scott O'Brien (no apparent relation to quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien), whose first coaching gig in the NFL was as Bill Belichick's special teams coach when Belichick coached the Cleveland Browns.
Ellis Hobbs, the NFL record holder for longest kickoff return, was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles. Long-time special teams captain Larry Izzo was allowed to walk in the offseason, and is now a member of the New York Jets. Long snapper, and snow angel-maker-extraordinaire, Lonie Paxton was lured to Denver by new head coach Josh McDaniels.
So, what questions do the Patriots need to answer this offseason?
How will they adjust to the new rules?
The NFL quietly adopted a rule this offseason banning three-man wedges on kick returns. Now, only two players are allowed to run in front of the kick returner to drive away members of the opposing kick coverage unit, and those players have to maintain a certain distance from one another.
It's not entirely clear how this will affect the composition of the unit. For example, will it make having a large body on the coverage unit less desirable or more desirable? In the past, the Patriots have used defensive linemen such as Mike Wright and LeKevin Smith as "wedge-busters." The good news is that every other team has to deal with the same issues, so teams will definitely be testing each other this preseason.
Will the Patriots use as many "specialists" on special teams?
Bill Belichick is well-known for liking versatile players. Nevertheless, it is striking to note that the Patriots not only maintain a full battery of specialists—kicker, punter, and a dedicated long snapper—but they have also routinely devoted several of the other spots to players who played almost exclusively on special teams. Kick returners, kickers, and punters aren't all by themselves, after all.
In 2008, they had four such players, who were active every week that they were healthy, but almost never saw the field on offense or defense: Matt Slater and Ray Ventrone, both wide receiver/safety hybrids, along with the aforementioned Izzo and Kelley Washington, now in Baltimore. Moreover, none of these players were brought in primarily as return men; even Slater, often vilified for his fumble against the Steelers, was not brought in solely as a return man.
Given how loaded the Patriots are with talent, they may be forced to cut some of these ST-only slots, but, on the flip side, they've also brought in a number of players best known for their ST contributions, such as "linebacker" Vinny Ciurciu, who was coached by O'Brien in Carolina.
It's quite likely that the Patriots will continue to keep roster slots open for ST gurus, but it will probably be fewer than in 2008.
Who will fill Ellis Hobbs' shoes?
This will be one of the most intriguing questions in camp. Will one player beat out the others and be the primary kick returner, or will the Patriots go with a "return man by committee" approach, as they've done at running back?
The likely contenders are fourth-year running back Laurence Maroney, who did an outstanding job at returning when called upon to do so back in 2006; Terrence Wheatley, a second-year cornerback who was an outstanding returner for Colorado; Darius Butler, a rookie cornerback from Connecticut; and, depending on his rehab, possibly even rookie wide receiver Brandon Tate from North Carolina.
On punt returns, it seems likely that Wes Welker and Kevin Faulk will rotate duties, although it wouldn't be surprising to see a rookie like Julian Edelman of Kent State see time there, since he actually has a faster shuttle time (a measure of a player's ability to change directions quickly) than Welker.
Who will win the long snapper battle?
Paxton's departure from Foxboro resulted in a long-snapper carousel: Denver released their snapper, Mike Leach, who signed with Arizona, who released their snapper, Nathan Hodel, who then signed with the Patriots.
Nevertheless, the Patriots decided not to put their eggs all in one basket, and drafted Jake Ingram from Hawaii in the sixth round; Ingram was the only long snapper drafted in 2009. Ironically, because of issues related to the competition (since the Patriots will not carry two snappers), Ingram was the last of the Patriots' 12 rookies, other than the injured Tyrone McKenzie, to sign a deal.
OTAs and minicamps have not yielded a clear favorite here, so it's a question of experience versus youth and cost. The Patriots have had this quandary at punter in the past (Chris Hanson versus Danny Baugher, Aaron Perez, and Mike Dragosavich), and experience has won out every time. Will experience prevail at long snapper too?
Will the Patriots be able to keep their kicker?
Fourth-year kicker Stephen Gostkowski recently went to Hawaii for his first-ever Pro Bowl, and was also selected first-team All-Pro. At the end of the season, Gostkowski, who in just three seasons already ranks in the top 250 in NFL history in points scored, will be a free agent—if there's a new CBA; Mike Reiss of the Boston Globe expects that as a free agent Gostkowski could land a contract worth $3 million a year. If 2010 is uncapped, however, Gostkowski will be a restricted free agent, meaning the Patriots can keep him for less than that while requiring other teams to pony up a first-round pick to sign him away.
The Patriots aren't terribly flush with cash—they have a few million in cap room available—so they probably won't extend Gostkowski in midseason unless they have to. If it looks likely a new CBA will be signed, though, don't be surprised to see Gostkowski signed to a long-term deal.
Right now, there are a lot of moving parts, so it's very difficult to make any sort of projections. The Patriots' special teams in 2009 could be awe-inspiring, or just plain awful, or anywhere in between, but it will definitely be interesting to watch.