Taking a look at the Patriots special teams during the 2012 season as an addition to our positional review series.
Final Depth Chart: Kicker -- Stephen Gostkowski; Punter-- Zoltan Mesko; Long snapper -- Danny Aiken; Punt returner -- Wes Welker; Kickoff returner -- Devin McCourty; Core special teamer -- Matthew Slater (Pro Bowl pick); Julian Edelman, the team’s top punt returner early in the year, finished on injured reserve.
Key Statistics: Gostkowski: 29 of 35 on FGs (83.2 percent), led the NFL in scoring; Mesko: 37.9 net punting average; McCourty: 24.2 yards/kickoff return, 1 TD; Edelman: 15.5 yards/punt return, 1 TD.
Overview: Using the rankings compiled by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, the Patriots were the 13th-best special teams group in the NFL. Strengths for the team included the punt return unit, as well as the kickoff and punt coverage teams for much of the season. The kickoff coverage team struggled mightily against the Houston Texans, but buttoned things up for the AFC Championship Game. Gostkowski had another solid year by the numbers, but had critical misses early in the season that were noteworthy (a Week 2 miss on a would-be game winner among them). Mesko’s numbers don’t reflect his strong season, although he was largely solid as a directional and field position punter. Slater led the core special teams units, providing outstanding open field coverage and earning a Pro Bowl selection for his efforts. Though McCourty returned one kickoff for a touchdown, the Patriots are still in need of a dynamic return man, as too often they found themselves starting near their own 20-yard line. When healthy, Edelman proved himself to be a very good punt returner, and he is the only player to return a punt for a touchdown in each of the past three seasons.
2013 Personnel Preview: The trio of specialists is under contract for 2013, and there isn’t an urgent need to replace any of them. It’s always possible that the team will add competition for training camp, however. From a returning standpoint, both Edelman and Welker are free agents, meaning the team may need to find a new punt returner. McCourty will be back next season, but the team may have its new kickoff returner in Jeff Demps, the world-class sprinter who spent 2012 on injured reserve. Slater will once again lead the core special teams units.