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Patriots improve from 11th to 6th in annual special-teams rankings

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the Associated Press All-Pro team was announced for the 2016 season, the New England Patriots' Matthew Slater (14 votes) and Nate Ebner (12) finished first and second for the lone special-teams spot. It was a reflection, in part, on the emphasis that Bill Belichick places on special teams.

So it comes as little surprise that the Patriots finished among the league's top clubs in Rick Gosselin's widely respected special-teams rankings. After an 11th-place standing in 2015, the Patriots jumped to No. 6 this past season.

That's a job well done by special-teams coach Joe Judge and his assistant Ray Ventrone, who just concluded their second season in their roles.

The Patriots are no strangers to top-10 finishes in the rankings that Belichick has cited in the past as the gold standard to measure special-teams success. They were third in 2014, and first in 2013 and 2010.

Specific to 2016, Belichick has said Ebner had "by far" the best season of his five-year career. Meanwhile, Slater continued to draw plenty of attention from opposing teams, while second-year player Brandon King and undrafted rookie Jonathan Jones emerged as top players as well. Two forced fumbles in a Sept. 22 win over the Houston Texans were big plays in a 27-0 win.

Linebacker Shea McClellin also showed up with a leaping block of a Justin Tucker field goal in a December game against the Baltimore Ravens, while Dion Lewis impressed with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the divisional round of the playoffs against the Texans. (The postseason is not accounted for in the rankings.) Punter Ryan Allen was solid with a 44.7 average and 41.4 net, with 23 attempts inside the 20 and just five touchbacks.

As for struggles, kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed three extra points (46-of-49) and five field goals (27-of-32), while top draft pick Cyrus Jones (No. 60 overall) had issues with ball security and judgment at times.