A few years ago, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick asked his scouts to rank the entire roster "from first to last" in terms of importance and ability. When the scouts were done with their exercise, no one had thought to put kicker Stephen Gostkowski in their top 10, which resulted in Belichick having a teaching moment with his front office.
Kickers are people, too. They're talented people.
"A lot of the games come down to the kicker," Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht recalled from his lesson under Belichick.
Of course, Belichick's exercise was about talent and Gostkowski is a reigning All Pro. There's no question that he's talented. When looking at the Patriots, there are three players that stand atop the league at their respective positions: Gostkowski, Tom Brady, and Rob Gronkowski.
So if we're ranking players on their ability alone (ie: How does Gronkowski compare to other tight ends?), of course Gostkowski will rank among the best on the roster.
Instead, I decided to go through the roster myself and rank the talent from first to last and see who I considered the most important players on the roster- and whether or not Gostkowski would end up in my top 10.
For me, I consider "Value Above Replacement" when it comes to player importance, and that reigns supreme over individual talent. While Devin McCourty is undoubtedly one of the most talented players on the roster, how does the drop from McCourty to Duron Harmon compare to the drop from Nate Solder to Marcus Cannon?
And so my ranking factors in both individual ability and the possible replacement player. I ask myself, would I rather have McCourty and Cannon, or Solder and Harmon? and the answer leads to which player I consider more important.
Here we go.
10. SS Patrick Chung
Replacement: Jordan Richards
Chung has quietly become one of the most important players on the Patriots, thanks to his versatility. He can cover Colts WR T.Y. Hilton in the slot, he can cover tight ends and running backs, and he can lower his shoulder and disrupt opposing rushing attacks. Richards shows promise, but Chung is the real deal and his value cannot be understated.
9. OT Nate Solder
Replacement: Marcus Cannon
Anyone disagree? I'll note that Cannon is the third tackle, behind Sebastian Vollmer, which is why he's the replacement player. Vollmer would swing over to the left side, but Cannon gets added to the line- and Cannon was abysmal last season. Solder wasn't a world-beater when he was on the field, but the talent on the line is horrifying when he's gone.
8. ED Jabaal Sheard
Replacement: Chris Long
Perhaps Long won't be the top back-up for the full season (I'm on board with Trey Flowers), but for now the drop is real. Sheard is one of the best edge defenders in the entire league, while Long has become a one-dimensional pass rusher over the past few seasons as he's battled serious injuries. The entire defensive front would take a hit if Sheard was lost.
7. LB Dont'a Hightower
Replacement: Shea McClellin
It feels good to write McClellin instead of Jonathan Freeny, but Hightower's incredibly important to the defense. He's a leader at the heart of the defense and he's one of the top five or 10 linebackers in the entire league. His pass rush and run stuffing ability are both top notch and the drop to McClellin would be noticeable.
6. LB Jamie Collins
Replacement: Shea McClellin
McClellin will back-up both Collins and Hightower, thanks to his versatility, but I believe the drop from Hightower->McClellin would be less than Collins->McClellin. Collins is utilized in coverage and is just an athletic marvel. I trust Belichick's ability to cover up deficiencies of McClellin in Hightower's role better than if McClellin had to take over for Collins.
5. WR Julian Edelman
Replacement: Keshawn Martin
Edelman is an undeniable force on the field and the Patriots offense collapsed last season when he was unavailable. Martin serves as the top back-up, since Danny Amendola doesn't leave the slot and Chris Hogan is expected to take over for Brandon LaFell on the outside. Regardless, whichever receiver takes the field in place of an injured Edelman is a major drop.
4. RB Dion Lewis
Replacement: James White
Lewis was a top 10 running back in the league last season before his injury and White was unable to fill the hole. While White and Lewis are both elite receivers out of the backfield, Lewis was an above-average rusher, while White was one of the worst in the entire league. Lewis brings an entirely different dimension to the offense.
3. CB Malcolm Butler
Replacement: Cyrus Jones
The Patriots were fortunate that Butler and Logan Ryan were healthy last season, because there was a big drop in talent. New England added Jones in the 2nd round, return the likes of Justin Coleman and Darryl Roberts, and have brought in a handful of intriguing back-up options. The fact remains: Butler is asked to smother the opposing team's top wide receiver and there are no other cornerbacks on the roster up for that task at this point in time.
2. TE Rob Gronkowski
Replacement: Martellus Bennett
I actually considered dropping Gronkowski behind Butler and Lewis, before I decided I deserved a Walk of Atonement for just thinking about it. Gronkowski is the singularly most unique player in the entire league and that's that. No tight end can come close to his ability on the field; while Bennett is a top 10 tight end, the drop from Gronkowski to anyone else is absurdly massive. I take the future Hall of Famer in Gronkowski and James White over Bennett and Lewis every day of the week.
1. QB Tom Brady
Replacement: Jimmy Garoppolo
Mentions: Gostkowski and McCourty
McCourty is a phenomenal player, but Harmon is pretty good in his own right. I considered the drop from McCourty to Harmon to be far less than any of the drops in the top 10.
As for Gostkowski, I couldn't do it. Would I rather Gostkowski and Jordan Richards over Patrick Chung and Free Agent off the Street? I would personally take my chances with Chung and the Free Agent. I say this knowing full well that Gostkowski adds almost 20 extra points over the course of the season over the replacement kicker.
Gostkowski hits roughly 15% more field goals than kickers off the street and is good for an extra point or two more. That's the drop and it's big.
But I'll argue that Chung is worth more than one point per game over Richards to the defense, thanks to his versatility in the box and the slot, and thanks to his fantastic ability.
Gostkowski is my 11th, with McCourty as my 12th, and I hope Belichick can understand my reasoning.