Patriots take rare risk by drafting kicker-punter duo in same year

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. –- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. Rookie specialists: When the Patriots selected kicker Chad Ryland (fourth round) and punter Bryce Baringer (sixth round) in the 2023 NFL draft, they became just the second team in the last 30 years to pick a kicker and punter in the same draft.

The Las Vegas Raiders, with kicker Sebastian Janikowski (first round) and punter Shane Lechler (fifth round), were the other -- in 2000.

Entrusting those spots to rookies this year -- which is something Ryland (Eastern Michigan/Maryland) and Baringer (Michigan State) will still have to earn in training camp – has flown under the radar with Patriots media-based attention focused more on offseason changes to spark quarterback Mac Jones and the stagnant offense.

One of the country’s leading experts on evaluating specialists, Jamie Kohl, stressed the importance of patience.

“Rookie statistics are always a little lower than the NFL average when it comes to specialists, particularly with field goal percentage. Punting is not as noticeable -- of course, with [Tennessee’s] Ryan Stonehouse breaking so many records [in 2022],” he said.

“It’s not a talent thing. The biggest thing is understanding the stadiums. Understanding the wind flow in different environments. I know it sounds like that’s not as big of a deal, but when your job is to put a ball between 18 feet, six inches-wide [goal posts], you have to become an expert at understanding ball flight, trajectory, rotation, and then being able to feel the stadiums and what’s going on.”

To Kohl’s point, rookie kickers converted 83% of their field goal attempts from 2018-22, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Last season, that would have ranked 24th among kickers.

Kohl started hosting traveling camps with his father John and brother Andy in 2000, with a goal of gathering as many talented kickers, punters and long-snappers across the country. They have grown to become a go-to option for many prospects -- both Ryland and Baringer credit them for their career advancement -- and a key resource for NFL teams (every drafted punter and kicker this year went through Kohl’s camps/workouts).

“The hard part about kicking, punting, snapping -- similar to golf -- it’s more of an ‘over-the-course-of-time’ position. The difference in performance can be dramatic one day to the next, especially at the high school level,” Kohl said.

“So one of the main questions the Patriots and other teams had on Bryce and Chad -- because we worked with them so much in January, February, March and April this year -- was, ‘Is what you saw similar to what they produced on their pro days and combine?’ That was where we had some value.”

Kohl’s answer was a decisive “yes” -- citing their mental toughness, Ryland’s leg speed and combination of accuracy and distance (as long as 72 yards), and Baringer’s consistency with hang times of 5-plus seconds (sometimes hitting 5.5, 5.6).

Kohl’s credibility among NFL teams was further solidified due to his recent in-season work with the Chicago Bears and Carolina Panthers. He served as a kicking consultant for the Bears from 2019-21, helping them transition from rookie Cody Parkey’s “double doink” miss in a devastating wild-card round loss on Jan. 6, 2019 to Cairo Santos taking over and setting a franchise record for consecutive field goals (40). Last season, Kohl worked for the Panthers when kicker Eddy Pineiro led the NFL with a field-goal percentage of 94.3.

“It goes to show that anyone within the 32 [teams] can have a great season,” Kohl said. “A lot of it comes down to coaching, to situations, and I hold the Patriots in super-high regard. They’ve done extremely well with their special teams and I know Bill [Belichick] puts a big emphasis on it.

“That’s why I was excited to see Bryce and Chad -- who I respect quite a bit, I know their journeys, which are similar -- wind up there together.”

2. Rare feet: How unusual would it be for Ryland and Baringer to take over and thrive in 2023? Consider that over the last 20 seasons, there have been only 15 instances of a team using a rookie on both field-goal attempts and punts in a season (usually one of the players is undrafted). Also adding to the degree of difficulty is that the punter is often the holder for field goal attempts, and specific to 2023, wind patterns inside the Patriots’ home stadium are evolving with construction that enclosed the north end.

3. D-Hop update: Key points on where things stand with free agent receiver DeAndre Hopkins, according to sources close to the situation, are as follows: The Tennessee Titans and Patriots have made offers, the Titans have been more aggressive to this point and Hopkins hasn’t been in a rush to sign. One reason for Hopkins to wait a bit longer is to leave open the possibility of another team entering the mix, potentially increasing his market.

4. D-Hop’s incentive: If it remains between the Titans and Patriots, one question Hopkins might have to ask himself is which team gives him a better chance to cash in on incentives and maximize his earnings. Given his proven production in Bill O’Brien’s offense from their time together with the Houston Texans, perhaps that would give New England an edge.

5. McCourty's snapshot: Retired Patriots safety Devin McCourty knows how to create a buzz in New England, which he did last week with an Instagram post showing he was spending time with Tom Brady and Mac Jones in the Hamptons. Brady and Jones had met before but McCourty, a longtime captain who was teammates with both QBs over his career (2010-22), was the perfect middleman to bring them closer together for a picture that resonated with Patriots fans.

6. Mac’s legacy: Jones spent the last days of June in Aledo, Texas, staying true to his “QB Club” commitment to mentor up-and-coming quarterbacks with his longtime coach Joe Dickinson. There were 24 youth/high school quarterbacks and 20 receivers invited, and Jones was joined by former Alabama teammate Slade Bolden in a mentoring role. Jones also led three classroom film sessions and the word is that he instituted a Patriots rule for them – all cell phones had to be turned off.

7. Bentley’s evolution: When trying to quantify linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley’s value to the Patriots’ defense, which led to his recent two-year contract extension that includes $9 million guaranteed, consider that he ranks second among 89 linebackers with a 39.5% run stop win rate since 2018 (minimum 2,000 snaps played per ESPN analytics).

That was one of Bentley’s strengths as a prospect coming out of Purdue, while his production in coverage -- which had been viewed as a weakness -- has steadily evolved. According to NFL NextGen Stats, 55 linebackers were targeted 30-plus times in coverage last season and Bentley ranked eighth-best in allowing 5.4 yards per target.

8. Parker’s value: Receiver DeVante Parker’s new three-year contract in New England, which has a base value of $17.1 million and can be worth up to $33 million if all incentives and bonuses are reached, provides a springboard to highlight what the 6-foot-3, 219-pound Parker best brings to the offense when healthy. When Parker was on the field, the Patriots ranked fourth in average yards per attempt last season. When Parker wasn’t on the field, the Patriots ranked 31st in that category.

9. They said it: “He has very similar characteristics, mentality-wise, to Thomas Morstead. Those types of mentalities last. You can’t always explain it, but when you see it, it’s different.” said Jamie Kohl, linking Patriots rookie punter Baringer to the 15-year veteran Morstead whom Belichick once compared to a JUGS machine.

10. Did you know? The 2019 Cleveland Browns, 2012 St. Louis Rams, 2011 Philadelphia Eagles and 2005 New York Jets are the four teams to have a rookie kicker with 20 made field goals and a rookie punter with at least 50 attempts over the last 20 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The most successful turned out to be the Rams’ duo of Johnny Hekker (4) and Greg Zuerlein (1), with five first-team All-Pro selections between them.