The New England Patriots’ roster is among the deepest and most talented in the NFL, but that does not mean there are no areas of potential concern. Two of the prominent are tight end and place kicker, due to different reasons: the tight end position saw the retirement of future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski during the offseason, and the replacement options have so far only had a limited impact on the offense as a whole.
The kicker spot, meanwhile, was manned by veteran Stephen Gostkowski early on during the season before he had to be placed on season-ending injured reserve because of a hip injury. Mike Nugent was his initial replacement, with rookie punter Jake Bailey taking over kickoff duties, but after four inconsistent games New England decided to move on from him and instead bring the equally experienced Nick Folk on board in late October.
Over his first two games, Folk has made all seven of his kicks and apparently left head coach Bill Belichick happy with his team’s decision to make an in-season change at the position: “You know, Folk’s done a good job for us. He only has a few opportunities in a game, like all kickers do, but he’s shown a good level of performance and dependability. We’ve seen that in practice as well, consistency. So, he’s been good there,” Belichick said.
“He’s worked well with Jake and Joe [Cardona], and I think that operation is improving. I mean, I wouldn’t say we’re there yet, but it’s improving and it’s been productive,” added Belichick when talking about the 35-year-old during a press conference call earlier this week. While the Patriots have not put Folk in all too difficult situations just yet — his longest field goal attempt came from 39 yards out — he has delivered so far.
The same can also be said about one of Gronkowski’s successors (and, actually, predecessors) at tight end: Benjamin Watson. The 38-year-old ended his retirement after just four months to re-join the team that drafted him back in 2004, but he had to wait for his opportunity until Week 7 due to a four-game suspension to open the season and a subsequent stint on the open market after not immediately re-joining the 53-man roster.
Since then, the in-season addition has played a big role in the Patriots’ offense. While Watson’s numbers — he has caught 11 passes for 124 in four games — are not exactly eye-popping or on Gronkowski’s level, he is a steady and reliable presence at the position that also is improving. Belichick, therefore, named him in the same category as Folk as a player who is getting better but still has plenty of room for improvement.
“He missed several weeks of football there: a couple weeks at the end of the preseason, and then a few weeks during the start of the regular season,” said New England’s head coach about the position the 16-year veteran currently finds himself in. “So there was some time there, but Ben’s a smart guy. He works hard, he has a lot of experience, and he’s been able to be productive for us as well and in a higher volume of snaps.”
All in all, Belichick seems pleased with the development of both Folk and Watson — which could potentially be good news for the Patriots and two positions that saw some serious turnover since last year: “We’re fortunate that we have those two players, and they’ve done a good job for us.”