Even though they did not make any actual trades, the New England Patriots were still busy on the NFL’s trade deadline day as Bill Belichick and company shuffled the personnel on their active roster and practice squad: the club released kicker Mike Nugent and tight end Eric Tomlinson off the 53-man team and offensive tackle Aaron Monteiro off the practice squad, while also bringing Nick Folk on board to serve as the place kicker moving forward.
Replacing Nugent with Folk was certainly the most noteworthy of Tuesday’s moves — and in a way the most puzzling: why would the Patriots make a change if the new guy does not appear to be an upgrade on the surface? After all, Folk has been out of the NFL since 2017 after a disappointing four-game stretch with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during which he made just six of 11 field goal attempts (54.5%) and seven of nine extra point tries (77.8%).
Nugent, for comparison, posted better numbers during his four games since coming to New England to replace an injured Stephen Gostkowski: the 37-year-old was successful on five of his eight field goal kicks (62.5%) and also split the uprights on 15 of the 16 PATs he attempted (93.8%). While the statistics may not be impressive, they certainly hold up when compared to the ones Folk put up during his last injury-shortened season in the league.
As always, however, numbers only tell one part of the story and the available information on both kickers apparently made a change the best course of action for the team. What this information could look like is impossible to tell from outside the organization, but there are two intertwined areas that certainly appear as if they could be part of the reasoning for the move:
1.) Mike Nugent’s reliability compared to Nick Folk’s.
2.) Mike Nugent’s range compared to Nick Folk’s.
The Patriots’ “Do Your Job” mantra puts a high value on the players being dependable performers. While Nugent made most of his kicks, he also had some misses — from his first kick in a Patriots uniform that was pushed wide to the right to Sunday’s 29-yarder that sailed past the uprights on the other side. What stands out about his misses is that they all came inside a range that should be rather automatic for a kicker: inside the opposing 23-yard line.
Nugent hitting on a combined 20 of 24 kicks (83.3%) from a distance of up to 40 yards away — this “real” field goal distance is created by adding 17 yards to the down marker: the depth of the end zone plus the distance between long snapper and holder — is by all accounts disappointing, and closely related to the second point mentioned above. It was, after all, obvious the Patriots did not trust the in-season addition from 40+ yards away.
The veteran’s limited range is reflected in the fact that the Patriots’ fourth down procedure changed even while inside Nugent’s theoretical field goal distance: eight times during his four game stint did the team pass on an opportunity at a field goal from up to 55 yards — the veteran’s career-high — and instead either left the offense on the field (six times; three conversions) or sent Jake Bailey out to punt the football away (twice).
All that being said, Folk was not much better during his final season in the NFL from inside 40 yards. In fact, his success rate is slightly worse than Nugent’s as he made 10 of 13 kicks from that distance (76.9%) in 2017. However, there are positive signs: for one, the soon-to-be 35-year-old has a better career percentage from up to 40 yards than his predecessor (91.1% to 90.2%, not including extra point kicks before the 2015 rule change).
Furthermore, Folk also made all six of his attempts from inside 40 yards during his stint with the short lived AAF earlier this year; he also hit a 55-yard field goal that went down as the longest kick in AAF history. In general, it would not be a surprise to see the Patriots trust Folk more with longer-range kicks and maybe even kickoffs — two things they never did when Nugent was still part of the special teams operation.
Ultimately, it seems as if New England sees more upside in Folk compared to what Nugent brought to the table. But what this move shows more than anything else is the team’s willingness to make a change if the results are not up to expectations.