Patriots starters on special teams

Rob Gronkowski's injury while playing the wing on the field-goal protection unit has sparked a discussion on the value of starters playing on special teams.

Looking at the composition of the Patriots' six primary special teams units in Sunday's win over the Colts, here are some of the notable starters playing on special teams:

1. TE Rob Gronkowski on the field-goal protection unit.

2. DE Rob Ninkovich on punt coverage and punt return.

3. DL Vince Wilfork on the field-goal block team.

4. CB Devin McCourty on kickoff coverage and kickoff return (as the returner).

5. WR Wes Welker on the punt return unit (as the returner).

6. Every offensive lineman on the field-goal protection unit.

ANALYSIS: One of the challenges for any coaching staff is that there are only so many players on the 46-man game-day roster to fill out each special teams unit. The Patriots have quite a few special-teams-only type of players (e.g. Tracy White, Niko Koutouvides, Nate Ebner, Derrick Martin, Mike Rivera, Matthew Slater), those who are on the roster, first and foremost, because of their contributions in the kicking game. So it's not as if Belichick is loading up his special teams with starters. ... One other point of interest -- In 2010 and 2011, Gronkowski was part of the kickoff return unit, playing in the wedge (remember the tough day he had in Cleveland as a rookie in '10?). But the Patriots have taken him off that this year, seemingly as an acknowledgement of the added injury risk of playing that role (some big collisions in the wedge). Obviously, there is a different level of risk depending on the unit. In this case, the question to ask is something like this: "Is the difference between Gronkowski playing the wing that much greater than someone like Visanthe Shiancoe or Michael Hoomanawanui?"