What's Seely Going To Do?

With special teams such a vital part of NFL games, and even more important when an offense stalls, can a team afford not to have a top leg on special teams? That is the question facing Patriots special teams coach Brad Seely for 2008.

Shaking Things Up

In 2007, New England opted to let veteran punter Josh Miller go in favor of a pair of rookies who fought for the starting job in his absence. In hindsight, the decision to let Miller go had to be made, but the timing could have been better. The 37-year old missed the final 6 games of the 2006 season due to injury, and his net (35.8 avg.) was significantly below his prior season (38.3 avg.).

In a perfect world, Southern California's Tom Malone and Arizona's Danny Baugher would have been more than just camp fodder for the Patriots in 2007; they could have been the team's future. What ended up happening is something that caught Seely by surprise, and left New England with a bit of a bind.

After opting to part ways with the 11-year veteran Miller in mid August, Seely apparently settled on Baugher for the starting role. Malone was released roughly a week after Miller departed, leaving Baugher as the team's starter.

Then an unexpected turn of events happened. The Patriots cut Baugher on the eve of the regular season (Aug. 30). The team signed veteran punter Chris Hanson the same day.

The change in direction so close to the start of the season raises questions of what Seely must have been thinking. Did the team sever ties with Malone and Miller in an unfriendly way? Was Hanson the fallback option? Did Seely really want Hanson all along?

How The 2007 Decision Was reached

A review of the players in camp suggests that Seely preferred to have a veteran leg on the roster. Malone was an unproven commodity though the two-time Ray Guy award semifinalist spent the final part of the 2006 season on the Patriots' practice squad. Though he showed a powerful leg -- routinely launching punts of 50 -60 yards in practice -- he lacked directional consistency.

Baugher, appeared to win the punting competition in camp primarily from a strong leg and a consistent performance. Unfortunately, an off-the-field incident likely contributed to the team opting to part ways with the rookie.

Malone was out of football in 2007. He recently went through drills at USC's Pro Day in an effort to drum up interest from teams. All 32 teams were represented at the event.

Baugher signed on with the Cincinnati Bengals earlier this off-season. The Bengals opted to go a different direction, releasing Baugher the first week of April. He has since signed with the Denver Broncos.

Miller signed on for a few games with the Titan for 2007. He appeared in one game, punting three times (40.3 avg., 37.0 net). He currently remains a free agent.

P Chris Hanson in the AFC Championship game
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

How Hanson Compared

With Miller gone, Baugher cut and Malone released, in stepped 8-year veteran Hanson. The former Jaguar filled the needs for Seely's special teams unit admirably. Though distance was a concern for Hanson, placement was not. In just 44 team punts (the fewest in franchise history), Hanson managed to place nearly 30% (29.5) of his punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line; on par with the past three seasons by Miller (27.9%, 28.9%, 33.9%). Hanson's 38.1 net avg. (23rd best of punters with 20 or more punts) put the Patriots at a disadvantage, though that could be attributed to the performance of the coverage unit. His gross avg. of 41.4 yards. (26th amongst punters with 20 or more attempts) was worse, likely causing concern for the team. Fortunately, the success of the offense alleviated the need for a stellar performance by the Patriots punt unit.

Comparatively speaking, Hanson didn't fare much differently than the top two rookie punters the Patriots considered drafting in 2007, Daniel Sepulveda and Adam Podlesh. Sepulveda managed a 42.4 gross and a 39.9 net avg. while Podlesh managed a pedestrian 41.6 gross and a 36.9 net.

The concern for Seely and the Patriots in 2008 is what to do at the position. Hanson has showed better in previous seasons with a 44.2 gross and a 37.6 net (2002) in seasons when he punted more than 20 times. Do the Patriots hope he returns to form, or do they try to improve the performance at the position?

Bringing In Another Veteran

The Patriots have brought in veteran free agent punter Mitch Berger this week for a visit. If the team has interest in acquiring a veteran leg rather than a rookie for 2008, Berger is just one of the options available.

Other options are few and far between.

Looking To The Draft

Drafting a rookie is no certain improvement, while the punters available on the market are available for a reason.

Expect the Patriots to bring in at least one leg to compete with Hanson in camp. We're betting they'll being two.

Top rookie Draft prospects:
Durant Brooks, Georgia Tech
Mike Dragosavich, North Dakota State
Ken DeBauche, Wisconsin
Brett Kern,
Patrick Fisher, LSU
Geoffrey Price, Notre Dame

Jon Scott has covered the NFL since 1995, and is a regular contributor to Patriots Insider. A member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA), he has been a guest analyst on the NFL Network, Sporting News Radio, ESPN Radio and other outlets around the web, including other publications on the Scout.com network. Jon's articles have appeared on Foxsports.com and, MySpace Sports. You can reach Jon in the forums at PatriotsInsider.com or

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