Welcome to 10 Patriots training camp questions!
Each day leading up to the start of camp, the Herald will explore one of the biggest questions facing the Patriots this summer. Several pertain to the offense, which held the team back in 2019 and will feature a new quarterback this season. Others cover the defense and special teams, units whose success should hinge on the play of a few players and/or positions.
Once the Patriots hit the field, here’s what they must learn before the 2020 season kicks off.
Can the Pats rejuvenate their return game?
Never in NFL history has the kick return been quite devalued as it has been in recent years.
Every season since 2016, at least 23 teams have achieved a touchback on more than half their kickoff attempts. Until last year, the league’s touchback percentage had been steadily climbing over that stretch. In turn, only 26 kickoffs have been returned for touchdowns the past four seasons.
In 2010, returners took 23 kickoffs to the house that season alone.
Still, the action is not completely dead. Particularly for a defensive team like the Patriots, gaining a few extra yards — or springing for a rare return touchdown — can be vital. Same goes for punt returns.
Yet by the end of 2019, the Pats were among the least-threatening return teams in the NFL. Brandon Bolden ranked third-to-last in return average among players who had at least 20 kick returns. He graded below average among all returners at Pro Football Focus.
Bolden is solid and sure-handed. He’s just not dynamic or a threat to score.
Neither was the Pats’ punt return unit after Gunner Olszewski was shelved with an injury midway through last year. A hobbled Mohamed Sanu was left picking up the slack, which more often than not meant simply calling for fair catches.
Looking ahead, it seems the Pats are preparing to throw a smattering of returners at the wall to see who can stick through the summer.
Free-agent addition Damiere Byrd, a smallish wideout with 4.2 speed, projects as one of Bolden’s top camp competitors on kick returns. He made four returns with Arizona last season, averaging fewer than 25 yards per. Byrd also took seven kickoffs for Carolina in 2017, including one for a touchdown.
Another diminutive receiver, undrafted rookie Jeff Thomas, figures to find his way into the mix. Thomas was a dangerous return man at the University of Miami, where most of his damage was inflicted on punts. His uncommon blend of elite speed and quickness could found a long return career — if he can stay out of trouble. Of course, Thomas has to make the team first.
Another name to remember is a rookie with a guaranteed roster spot: Kyle Dugger. The Pats’ top pick set coverage units ablaze in college, shedding would-be tacklers on returns and leaving all others trembling in his wake. Making the jump from Division II, Dugger’s camp will be fascinating to follow.
Most of those players — chiefly Dugger and Thomas — are threats to take over punt returns. Olszewski will have a say, having succeeded Julian Edelman, now 34, last season. He ranks among the quickest Patriots and returns with a fearlessness that forces onlookers to wonder whether he has any regard for his own body.
N’Keal Harry could also factor as an emergency punt returner, having taken almost daily reps in last year’s training camp. The same goes for James White on kick returns.