NFL: Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots

Patriots owner Robert Kraft greets wide receiver Matthew Slater before a September game at Gillette Stadium.

In a season in which the offense was uninspiring and the defense had the consistency of mashed potatoes, there was one unit of the team the New England Patriots haven’t had to worry about on game day.

Bill Belichick has always stressed the importance of special teams and while there has been plenty to complain about when it comes to the Patriots, the kicking game isn’t one of them.

Monday’s news only helped reinforce the point. When the AFC Pro Bowl team was announced, special-teams captain Matthew Slater made it for the ninth time and second-year punter Jake Bailey earned his first appearance, joining cornerback Stephon Gilmore as the team’s only selections.

You can question Belichick’s ability to evaluate wide receivers or draft defensive backs, but finding special-teams standouts is something he’s clearly got nailed down.

Bailey has stood out since the Patriots drafted him in 2019 and not just because he was the first right-footed punter Belichick has had in New England.

He earned AFC Special-Teams Player of the Week twice as a rookie. Not only did he kick for distance but his directional punting was also impressive as Bailey finished second in punts inside the 20-yard line.

Bailey only got better as the season moved along. As the offense struggled, it gave him more opportunities to unleash the fury and bomb balls downfield. Bailey’s 48.7 yards per punt average is fourth in the NFL. That certainly helped make him the first Patriot punter to make the Pro Bowl since Rich Camarillo in 1983.

More impressive, Bailey is the league’s only full-time punter who’s had single-digit punts returned against his unit and only New Orleans’ Thomas Morstead has fewer return yards against.

“He’s got the big leg and the ability to change field position, but also situational punting, like he had in the Miami game,” Belichick said. “He does a lot of little things that are really important to the success of our special teams’ unit.”

Bailey’s also handled kickoffs this season and his average of 63.6 yards per kick is ninth in the NFL. Tack on his duties as a holder for Nick Folk — who hasn’t missed a field goal since Week 2, a streak of 25 straight — and it only increases his value to the Patriots.

“He’s had an outstanding year,” Belichick said. “The punting’s obvious, but there’s a lot of little things too that he does a great job of.”

It’s no surprise Slater was recognized. In 2011, his fourth in the NFL, Slater earned his first Pro Bowl honor and has made it every year since with the exception of 2018 when, coincidentally, current teammate Adrian Phillips earned the special teams spot in the AFC.

Whether or not Slater is the best in the NFL is a question that’s long been answered and now it’s a matter of where he ranks in the history of the league.

Although Belichick doesn’t think that’s much of a question either.

“He’s got to be at the top. I can’t think of anybody who’s done more than he has,” Belichick said. “He’s done it over a very consistent period of time at a very high level in addition to all the qualities he brings off the field.”

This year’s kick coverage unit with Slater and Justin Bethel has been a verifiable dream team and an argument could be made that it’s the most talent a team’s ever had from the gunner position.

Slater makes plays that often go unnoticed, especially when games go the way they did on Sunday in Miami. On the Miami drive that ended with a J.C. Jackson interception, Slater helped pin the Dolphins inside the 5 by catching a ball over his shoulder, then flipping it back to Bethel before he stepped into the end zone.

It was almost similar to the play Bethel made two weeks earlier, one Slater called the toughest in the NFL.

But the captain made it look so easy against Miami as he’s done his entire career.

“We’ve had some great players here and I’ve had some great players throughout my career — Cleveland, going back to the Giants — but he’s certainly the very best that I’ve ever been around and that we’ve ever had to play against as well,” Belichick said. “His consistency is outstanding, but he factors in on a lot of plays.”