State of the Patriots: Stephen Gostkowski still kicking?

Andy Hart
March 10, 2020 - 11:33 am
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As the NFL offseason heads toward free agency and the draft, all 32 teams must assess their own talent before they begin anew the roster-building process. With that in mind, WEEI.com is taking a position-by-position look at the state of the Patriots roster.

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Special teams

Returning players: Stephen Gostkowski (PK), Jake Bailey (P/KO), Joe Cardona (LS), Gunner Olszewski (PR), Brandon Bolden (KOR/SPT), Justin Bethel, Brandon King, James Develin

Free agents: Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Nick Folk (PK), Shilique Calhoun,

2019 recap: Aside from veteran kicker Stephen Gostkowski’s horrific start to the year and subsequent landing on injured reserve, special teams was an overall strength for the Patriots last fall. Gostkowski missed five kicks in the first four games of the season – after a rocky preseason – before having surgery for a hip injury. Mike Nugent and Kai Forbath filled in before Nick Folk solidified the job for the rest of the season, hitting all 12 of his PATs and 14 of 17 field goals. If Gostkowski was the low point on special teams, the punt block unit was the high point. The group blocked four punts, including a pair returned for touchdowns. The group was a key factor in early season dominance and filed position working in conjunction with the Boogeymen defense while holding opponents to a combined 6.3 average on punt returns over the course of the year. Though he dealt with some rookie inconsistency at times, fifth-round punter Jake Bailey was more than good enough overall, finishing with a 44.9 average and a 41.3 net, including 36 boots downed inside the 20 (on 81 chances). Bailey, who earned two AFC Special Teams Play of the Week Awards, benefited greatly from a resurgent season by Pro Bowl coverage ace Matthew Slater, who led the squad with 10 special teams tackles, had a blocked punt and scored his first career touchdown. In-season addition Justin Bethel (six tackles), returning veteran Brandon Bolden (eight tackles), Nate Ebner (eight tackles, blocked punt) and rookie Chase Winovich (six tackles, blocked punt) were other key contributors in coverage. Undrafted rookie Gunner Olszweski brought consistency to the punt return game with a 9.3-yard average that ranked sixth in the NFL before he was lost to injured reserve after eight games. Bolden served as the primary kickoff returner – a fading role in today’s NFL – finishing with a 22.4 average for a unit that finished 12th in average drive start on kickoff at 25.3. Sum it all up and it was a very good season for the Patriots special teams units under Joe Judge, who was subsequently rewarded with a head coaching job with the Giants.

2020 projection: Heading toward 2020, New England has a number of key core special teams veterans with uncertain futures. After 14 years, including All-Pro and Pro Bowl recognition, Gostkowski may be at a crossroads. Coming off poor production and surgery, Gostkowski could and should face some competition, at the very least, this summer. He’s 36 and set to have a cap hit of nearly $5 million this fall (with a dead cap number of $1.4 million according to Spotrac), so Gostkowski will have to prove he can be healthy and get back to his consistent best both in terms of kickoffs and PAT/FG. Other key decisions that will have to be made regard the futures of veteran mainstays Slater (coming off his eighth Pro Bowl at the age of 34) and Ebner, who’s 31. Given his resurgent impact last fall and seeming desire to continue to play, retaining Slater should be a relatively important target in offseason business. Otherwise, Bailey (who also showed he can kick off) and Cardona seem entrenched in their specialist roles while Brandon King should return as a younger core coverage guy with the likes of Bethel and Bolden. Beyond the kicking job, maybe the biggest would-be transition is with Cam Achord expected to take over the special teams coaching job role Judge having moved on. But with Judge having divided his time between the kicking game and coaching wide receivers a year ago, the respected assistant Achord probably got a nice prep year for the full-time job. Given the importance Belichick places on the third phase, the overall foundation remains in place for the kicking game moving forward.

Draft/free agency need – Moderate: Whether it’s re-signing the 35-year-old Folk as a precaution/competition or bringing in a young kicker/draft pick, the Patriots clearly can’t just cross their fingers and hope that Gostkowski returns to health/form in 2020. If the Patriots want to stick with the veteran-led status quo, then Slater and maybe Ebner are in line for a return. But if finances – as well as getting younger overall – are a bigger consideration, then the coverage group could be in line for a bit of a youth movement. Overall, though, there isn’t a ton of need outside of whatever the plan from Belichick, Achord and Nick Caserio is to bring stability to the kicker spot.

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