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This is the last in a series of position-by-position looks at the Patriots' personnel entering the 2011 offseason. Today, we analyze New England's specialists.
Overview: The Patriots had one of the league's top special-teams units, getting help from many of their younger players. The team got a surprise boost from rookie P Zoltan Mesko and overcame the injury to PK Stephen Gostkowski. Both returners, Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate, showed their potential for explosion on big plays.
The biggest struggle of the unit came on kickoff coverage. The Patriots were 17th the league in opponent's kickoff-return average. That's not awful, but allowing good field position to teams like the Lions kept games closer, and put more pressure on a weak defense. The loss of Gostkowski also hurt in that department, as PK Shayne Graham managed just two touchbacks.
WR Matt Slater ended up leading the team with 15 special-teams tackles, just ahead of veteran special-teamer LB Tracy White. CBs Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington helped on kickoff coverage, and veteran RB Sammy Morris was also a consistent contributor.
The special teams shined in the Week Four win against the Dolphins, when Patrick Chung blocked a field goal and a punt and Tate returned a kickoff for a touchdown.
But the special-teams play everyone will remember came in Week 15 against the Packers, when OG Dan Connolly rumbled 71 yards on a kickoff return to set up a touchdown.
Here's a breakdown of each of the specialists on the roster:
PK Stephen Gostkowski: After being awarded a contract extension before 2010, Gostkowski started the season converting just 1-of-4 field-goal attempts. He rallied to nail nine in a row before suffering a torn right quad muscle in Week Nine. He has had no setbacks in rehab and should return as the team's starter in 2011. Gostkowski also had 15 touchbacks on kickoffs.
PK Shayne Graham: The veteran was a perfect 12-for-12 on field goals in the regular season and made both his attempts in the playoff loss to the Jets. He did exactly what he needed to in replacing Gostkowski. Graham signed just a one-year deal, and will be looking for a new job in 2011. His inability to get kickoffs into the endzone didn't help the team's kickoff coverage.
P Zoltan Mesko: The team's fifth-round draft pick, Mesko helped the team have a net average of 38.4 yards (10th in the league) after finishing last in the league in 2009 with 34.1-yard net average. Mesko averaged 43.2 yards per punt, and his long of 65 came at a crucial time late in the team's 23-20 win over the Ravens.
LS Matt Katula: The seventh-year player replaced Jake Ingram in Week 10 and didn't botch a snap.
PR Julian Edelman: With a logjam at wide receiver, Edelman's best contribution came on punt returns. He had a stellar 15.3-yard average, including an electrifying 94-yard return for a score in the season finale.
KR Brandon Tate: The speedster spent his first full season with the Patriots and returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, gaining 25.8 yards per return. Teams started to kick away from him or keep him pinned to the sideline by the middle of the season, taking the threat of a long return away, but he should continue making an impact on returns next season.
Bottom line: With a lot of youth and skill on special teams, expect the kicking game units to excel again in 2011.