Under Contract (2015 Week 1 Age): P Ryan Allen (25)
Unrestricted Free Agent: K Stephen Gostkowski (31), LS Danny Aiken (27)
2014 Review: The Patriots finished the season with one of the best special teams units in the league, with coach Scott O'Brien riding off into the sunset after a Super Bowl victory. All three special teams players exceeded expectations in their own ways.
Gostkowski earned 2nd team All Pro, behind former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri, and it's easily argued that he should've won since Vinatieri doesn't manage kick-offs for the Colts. While the Patriots were the first Super Bowl victor to require only one field goal attempt since the Packers in Super Bowl I, Gostkowski was one of the most clutch kickers throughout the season. He is the all time leader in field goal percentage, out of kickers with 150+ attempts, and has led the league in completed field goals in each of the past two seasons. He finished the season ranked #1 in points all time by a Patriots player. The Seahawks were the first team to have zero kick returns in Super Bowl history.
That said, Gostkowski had a pretty low stress season without a game winning kick attempt all season; one of his two misses came against the Packers.
Allen continued to grow as a player and he absolutely played a part in winning multiple games over the course of the season. He consistently tilted the field with his kicks and compensated for some poor snaps while still producing at a high level. He was named Special Teams Player of the Week against the Chargers, with four of five punts landing inside the Chargers 13 yard line.
This play won GIF of the Week:
He made more than a couple of these types of kicks over the course of the season.
Long snapper Danny Aiken had different expectations than the other special teams players. He wasn't expected to be great as the Patriots tried to cut him prior to the season, but were unable to find a better player and end up bringing him back for the year. He was never great and, like the above punt, there was always snap that would cause a cringe every other game. Still, for a player the Patriots tried to cut, he managed to produce all season.
2015 Projection: The Patriots should absolutely try to bring back Gostkowski. He's reliable, he's consistent, and kickers are always missed the most when they're gone. His cap hit of $3.8 million last season should probably be higher than his future contract. Look for a deal in the line of $3-$3.5 million per season for a four-year deal.
Yes, a rookie would probably save $3 million off the cap, but with Florida State's Robert Aguayo returning to school for 2015 there isn't a lockdown kicker in the draft; the highest rated pure kicker is Notre Dame's Kyle Brindza who is a 70.4% career kicker, coming off a 14/24 season. It's not a good season to need a kicker.
Other alternate routes would involve signing a cheap veteran, but there aren't free agents worth signing; Ryan Succop is the only kicker on the market who played last season, would be worth signing, and would come with a cheap contract (~$1 million)- and since he's the only one, he'll likely be sought after. It will be hard to see the team going away from Gostkowski this season.
Allen will be back and should continue to grow. He will be restricted free agent next season, so look for a healthy and productive Allen to receive a long term contract at some point during the second half of next season.
Danny Aiken will likely receive a one-year deal, but will face staunch competition in camp for a roster spot. The Patriots will try and bring in a rookie like Navy's Joe Cardona (four year starter, zero bad snaps in his career), or Vanderbilt's Andrew East (four year starter, top rated long snapper prospect, named as one of the best 11 players with regards to social service). Neither will require a draft pick, but could see a 7th round pick just to make sure they don't sign elsewhere.
Regardless, the Patriots will have a new Special Teams coach in Joe Judge to help build up and maintain one of the top units in the entire league.