FOXBOROUGH — Jake Bailey has always been at home in the skies.
From a young age, the New England Patriots rookie punter developed a fascination with flight, fostered by a family tradition of aviation that stretches back generations.
“My great-grandfather was a private pilot, my grandpa flew for TWA Airlines for many years and was in the Air Force. My dad flew privately and during college it was something I was trying to pick up,” Bailey said. “I got 40 hours in, 20 hours solo and it’s something eventually down the road I’ll try to finish up.”
Through his flight experience, Bailey has developed a keen understanding of aerodynamics, and that has proven useful as he’s put his pursuit of a pilot’s license on hold to chase his NFL dream.
Bailey, who the Patriots traded up to draft in the fifth round this spring, is battling veteran Ryan Allen for the starting punter’s job, and his unique understanding of how the ball moves through the air has given him a leg up compared to your typical rookie. While fans at training camp will immediately notice Bailey’s booming leg, there is a lot more going on than simply booting the ball as high as possible.
“Lift with airplanes is the same as lift with punting,” Bailey said. “You’ve got to make sure the plane cuts the wind and the ball cuts the wind. There’s a lot of similarities.”
Unlike Corey Bojorquez, who also boasted a huge leg but never mounted a serious challenge to Allen last summer, Bailey possesses both a scientific understanding of what makes the perfect punt and the ability to consistently execute on the field. He also has the ability to take kickoffs, and taken together, that combination has made him a serious threat to the veteran Allen’s job.
“I think one of the things that should jump out is Jake does a great job of getting up through the ball, so his hang time-distance relationship is really good, and that’s a ratio you look for to help your coverage unit,” said Pete Alamar, who was Bailey’s special teams coach at Stanford. “He’s got exceptional leg speed and he combines that with exceptional flexibility. When you watch him punt it looks effortless.”
During Bailey’s time at Stanford, Alamar and his staff went to extraordinary lengths to try and help him perfect his mechanics. They teamed with Stanford’s sports science department to track Bailey’s leg speed in the same way a golfer might track their swing. They developed a proprietary statistic called the True Punter Index, which aimed to take into account everything that goes into a punt and produce a single, quantifiable number. Sort of like a punter’s equivalent of QBR.
Using that statistic, Alamar graded Bailey’s senior season and compared him to that fall’s NFL punters. It wasn’t a perfect comparison — they didn’t have the directional figures for the NFL punters — but when taking everything into account, they found that Bailey’s production would have already put him in the top five in the league.
That lined up with the eye-test as well. Among his highlights, Bailey recorded a school-record 84-yard punt against Cal, and on kickoffs he only surrendered four returns, sending the rest through the end zone for touchbacks.
Bailey will have a chance to make his NFL case in the coming weeks, starting next Thursday during the Patriots first preseason game against the Detroit Lions. The battle between him and Allen will be one of the most hotly contested of training camp, but whether it’s in New England or somewhere else, Alamar believes Bailey has the tools to enjoy a successful career at the professional level.
“The three things you have to answer are is he physically capable of performing at that level, mentally capable and emotionally capable?” Alamar said. “And I think Jake checks all of those boxes.”
If all goes well for Bailey, he may have to put his dream of becoming a pilot on hold for a bit longer.
Mac Cerullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.