The New England Patriots have tasked a franchise Hall of Famer with revitalizing their return game.
Troy Brown, the standout slot receiver/punt returner from the early years of the Bill Belichick era, will serve as the team’s kick returners coach this season — a newly created position and the only one of its kind in the NFL.
“That’s where my heart is,” Brown, the Patriots’ all-time leader in punt returns and punt return yards, said Friday in a video conference. “Punt returning is something that I took very seriously when I played the game. Getting after it on that side of the ball now and in that part of the game is something that has been, I think, a staple of Bill Belichick from the time he started coaching. I think it was one of his first jobs when he first started coaching, so he takes it really serious.
“He’s in on my meetings, so I’ve got to be on point with my stuff and know my stuff too and be able to teach it well to the players as well. It’s a big deal to him, and it’s a big deal to me because I what it can do to help change the game and help spark and create some excitement for your football team when you need it.”
With All-Pro kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson departing in free agency and Julian Edelman removing punt-return duties from his workload, the Patriots experienced issues in both areas last season.
Veteran running back Brandon Bolden, who’d never returned an NFL kick or punt before last September, proved to be a high-floor, low-ceiling replacement for Patterson, protecting the ball and avoiding mistakes but adding none of his predecessor’s big-play ability. His 22.4 yards-per-return average ranked third-to-last among qualified return men.
On the punt return side, undrafted rookie Gunner Olszewski initially impressed as Edelman’s successor, playing with an endearing tenacity and ranking in the top five in the NFL in yards per runback (9.0). But Olszewski’s fearless playing style landed him on injured reserve in November, and the Patriots’ plan to replace him backfired.
Trade deadline acquisition Mohamed Sanu took over despite having little NFL returning experience and suffered a high ankle sprain on a punt return during his third game with New England. That injury, which ultimately required surgery to repair, likely contributed to Sanu’s lack of offensive production down the stretch.
Envisioned as the Patriots’ No. 2 receiver behind Edelman, Sanu caught just 13 passes on 29 targets for 110 yards and no touchdowns over his final six games, including New England’s playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Overall, the Patriots ranked ninth in the NFL in punt return average and 17th in kick return average.
“The biggest (problem), in my opinion, has just been dependability and consistency,” Brown said. “If you don’t have those, it’s kind of tough to depend on one or two people to go back there and do it. But as you know, it’s a position that needs multiple people on the team that can go back there and handle those duties at any given time. Any one of those guys could be out of the lineup for a play or two or for a game or two. So you’ve got to have some dependable people back there that are able to field the punt and then able to do something with it, to create some of that positive momentum for your football team.
“In my opinion, those are the two biggest things that have been missing.”
Olszewski will have a chance to reclaim his spot this summer, but he’ll face stiff competition from second-round draft pick Kyle Dugger, veteran newcomer Damiere Byrd and undrafted rookies Jeff Thomas and Isaiah Zuber. Dugger was a prolific punt returner at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne, and unlike Olszewski, he’s guaranteed a spot on the 53-man roster.
It’s unclear who will replace Bolden as the primary kick returner. The competition likely will include Dugger, Byrd, Rex Burkhead and UDFA running back J.J. Taylor, who returned 41 kicks over his final two seasons at Arizona. Bolden’s decision to opt out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns greatly increased Taylor’s chances of making the team.
“We don’t count anybody out,” Brown said. “Everybody’s got a chance to show and prove what they can do. Again, we haven’t been able to see much of these guys as far as catching and running here in New England. But we’re looking forward to getting those guys out there and giving them all a chance to be a pretty darn good returner. Everybody’s alive. The job’s wide open, and as Bill says, he’s gonna play the best people at that position.”
Brown, who served as the Patriots’ unofficial assistant receivers coach last season, also will work under Ivan Fears as the team’s assistant running backs coach. That represents a reunion of sorts, as Fears coached Patriots wideouts — including Brown — from 1999 to 2001 before switching to backs.
“It’s been great working under Ivan, a guy that I played for as a receiver that got me into the Pro Bowl back in 2001,” Brown said. “It’s been great working with him.”
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images