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Patriots Rookie Keion Crossen Has Special Teams Ace Potential

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

Keion Crossen's name hasn't been uttered much on the radio around here, but perhaps it will be in due time.

If you've listened to the Sports Hub at night in recent years, you've heard venerable "Sports Vulture" Adam Jones chirp and squawk about "gunner talk," exclusively as a pejorative term. Discussing special teams certainly doesn't move the needle as compared to say, Tom Brady or Bill Belichick. So "gunner talk" is typically Jones' go-to phrase to describe something he couldn't be less interested in discussing.

But if Belichick were ever a Sports Hub listener, you could reasonably expect him to sit there like, "Yo you got some more of that gunner talk?"

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Belichick and the Patriots continue to place a relative premium on special teams, a unit that's long been among the best and most well-coached in the NFL. Seven-time Pro-Bowler Matthew Slater remains one of the league's elite gunners, quietly bottling up returners and gluing the group together and giving the Pats one less position to worry about. But the 32-year-old Slater has missed 10 games in his last two seasons and appears to be entering the final stretch of his career. Special teams gunner may not be at the top of Belichick's or the Patriots' priorities in the coming years, even if it's a pressing need.

But in Crossen, they may have found their guy anyway.

The former Western Carolina cornerback fell behind the rest of his draft class out of the gate, due to his lack of size at the time he got recruited. He told reporters after the Patriots drafted him that he weighed around 140 pounds during recruiting season. He's since filled out to 180 pounds, but at a generous 5-foot-10 still lacks ideal size for an NFL cornerback.

TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 22: Chris Black #1 of the Alabama Crimson Tide fails to pull in this touchdown reception against Keion Crossen #35 of the Western Carolina Catamounts at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 22, 2014 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 22: Chris Black #1 of the Alabama Crimson Tide fails to pull in this touchdown reception against Keion Crossen #35 of the Western Carolina Catamounts at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 22, 2014 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

That's why Crossen may only be able to pan out as a special teamer long-term. But he possesses two stronger traits that could make him the team's answer as a successor for Slater. For one, he's a proven tackler. He recorded a career-best 67 tackles (39 solo) in 12 games (11 starts) for the Catamounts in his senior year in 2017.

But even more intriguing about Crossen is is wheels. The kid's speed is truly elite. His Pro Day 40-yard dash time (4.32) would have tied him for first at the NFL Combine, had he gotten an invite. He had the same 40 time as fourth overall pick Denzel Ward, who went to the Browns, as well as fellow cornerbacks Donte Jackson (second-round pick) and Parry Nickerson (sixth-round pick).

Crossen is understandably aiming a bit higher with his NFL potential, and he's been emulating a familiar name.

"I play a little bit of Malcolm Butler," Crossen said. "That's one guy that I can say I kind of model my game after. He's a good player and it showed in the Super Bowl, but that's kind of who I model my game after. I also look at other corners as well. Things that I have – it gives me an idea of certain things that I can be successful [at] in the NFL."

If Crossen can turn his high-end athleticism into a starting cornerback job, even better. But in all likelihood, his best shot at making an impact as a rookie is on special teams. And if Crossen can hold onto his roster spot as an understudy of Slater, perhaps he can fashion his undeniable physical tools into the league's next great gunner.

Say what you want about "gunner talk." Maybe it's nothing. But Crossen's presence on the Patriots has certainly made it relevant.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].