After 14 memorable seasons and three Super Bowl victories, longtime kicker Stephen Gostkowski is being released by the New England Patriots, the team announced Monday evening.
After being drafted in 2006 out of Memphis, Gostkowski succeeded future Hall of Fame kicker Adam Vinatieri, and far exceeded expectations. After Tom Brady’s departure, Gostkowski departs as the longest-tenured Patriots player and as the all-time leader in points (1,775) in franchise history; his 87.4 percent field goal accuracy rate is the highest in Patriots history and fifth in NFL history.
Gostkowski joins players like Brady, Kyle Van Noy, and Duron Harmon as mainstays of the Patriots organization that have left the team this offseason, and leaves a sizable void at the kicker position that the team must address now. So why did New England release him now, with no apparent successor to Gostkowski in place, and where do they go from here?
Age and injuries could have been a factor.
At 36 years old, and coming off left hip surgery that limited him to just four games in 2019, it’s no guarantee that Gostkowski would return to the same form in 2020. Before going on injured reserve in 2019, Gostkowski missed four extra-point attempts in four games, as well as one field goal. With the team entering a transitional period now in 2020, and with an aging kicker coming off a significant injury to his lower body, now is as good a time as any to look for a new kicker of the future.
Releasing Gostkowski gives the team some (minimal) cap savings.
The Patriots are currently 31st out of 32 teams in available cap space, with just $2.8 million worth of breathing room underneath the salary cap before the release of Gostkowski. The release of Gostkowski gives the Patriots about $837,500 worth of additional cap space, according to Miguel Benzan of @PatsCap.
Who could the team sign to replace Gostkowski?
The options aren’t great. New England could re-sign Nick Folk, who finished the season with the Patriots, making 14 of his 17 field goal attempts in eight total games and also hitting all 12 of his extra-point attempts. However, Folk is 35 years old, and was a free agent for a reason before the kicker-needy Patriots signed him for the second half of the 2019 season. If you are going to make a change at the position this offseason, it should be with the future in mind. A 35-year-old journeyman kicker is not a long-term solution.
The pickings are slim when it comes to other free agents at the kicker position, if New England decides it is better off signing a kicker rather than drafting one. Former Tennessee Titans kicker Ryan Succop and former Los Angeles Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein are the only other free agent kickers that were with a team last season.
What are the team’s options for drafting a kicker?
Back in February, Bruce Feldman of The Athletic reported that the Patriots were hiring University of Alabama special teams analyst Joe Houston as an assistant special teams coordinator.
Houston has been dubbed ‘The Kicking Whisperer’, and in 2018, after being promoted to Iowa State’s special teams coordinator, Houston received glowing praise from Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell, who said, “Joe is definitely one of the most dynamic young special-teams coaches in the country. He’s maybe the best kicking coach in the country.”
It would make a lot of sense to bring in a highly-regarded kicking coach to help groom a rookie kicker in 2020. As a member of the Alabama staff last year, Houston got to see Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship up close during SEC play, which is notable because Blankenship is widely regarded as the best kicker in this year’s draft.
It would be a shrewd move by Bill Belichick to bring in both a rookie kicker and a bright, young kicking coach in the same offseason to help develop that player into the team’s kicker for the next 15 years. Houston also has the added benefit of already watching Blankenship kick in person during live game action, as opposed to in a scheduled draft workout like other NFL teams have to.
Other collegiate kickers for the Patriots to consider drafting include Tyler Bass (Georgia Southern), who had a strong week of practice at this year’s Senior Bowl, Jet Toner (Stanford), and Ricky Aguayo (Florida State).
Blankenship and Bass, in particular, stand out as high upside kickers who have a good shot at making it in the NFL. Working under the tutelage of Houston will undoubtedly benefit both player and team alike, and is why drafting a kicker makes more sense for the Patriots than signing one for 2020.