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Offseason preview: Kicker question will be a big one for the Patriots this spring

Related: Offseason preview: Patriots’ aging safety group got the job done in 2019, but will 2020 be more of the same?

NFL: New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

While the NFL playoffs are still underway with two teams left standing, the New England Patriots will have to set their sights on the season to come: after being eliminated from the postseason on wild card weekend, the offseason has arrived at Gillette Stadium — and it will be one of major intrigue considering that the AFC East champions have a long list of players scheduled to enter free agency once the new league year begins on March 18.

With that being said, let’s break down where the team stands at this point in time one position after the other. Today, we continue with the specialist positions where the Patriots have four players currently (still) under contract.

Jake Bailey

Position: Punter/Holder/Kickoff specialist

Age: 22

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Bailey has a salary cap hit of $657,520 in 2020.

2019 review: After moving up four spots in the fifth round of the draft, the Patriots selected Bailey with the 163rd overall selection — adding him to a competition with incumbent punter Ryan Allen. The rookie came away victoriously and went on to appear in all 17 of New England’s games during his first year in the NFL. Along the way, Bailey was named the AFC’s Special Teams Player of the Week twice and played a key role in one of the league’s best kicking game units.

Even though he was not always perfect, he showed tremendous leg strength and accuracy while working well alongside gunners Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel. Furthermore, Bailey displayed some much-needed versatility when he filled in as the Patriots’ kickoff specialist after Stephen Gostkowski was placed on season-ending injured reserve.

2020 preview: Bailey is a lock to return in 2020 due to his performance last season and low salary cap hit. The main question will be whether or not he will again see regular action on kickoffs as well, or if he returns to working exclusively as New England’s punter.

Joe Cardona

Position: Long snapper

Age: 27

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Cardona has a salary cap hit of $990,000 in 2020.

2019 review: Cardona had another solid season as the Patriots’ long snapper, and proved to be a durable presence that worked well with a changing cast of characters around him: the 27-year-old established a solid timing with punter/holder Jake Bailey, which in turn helped New England transition from one kicker to another in-season.

2020 preview: As one of the most reliable long snappers in the NFL and while playing on a manageable contract, Cardona’s spot on the Patriots’ roster is set in stone for 2020.

Nick Folk

Position: Place kicker

Age: 35

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 18.

2019 review: After neither Stephen Gostkowski (season-ending hip injury) nor Mike Nugent (inconsistent performances) were able to hold onto the kicker role early during the 2019 regular season, the Patriots brought in Nick Folk — a good move from the team’s perspective: while Folk did miss one game after undergoing an appendectomy, he appeared in eight contests for New England and proved himself a solid albeit unspectacular option at place kicker.

All in all, the veteran made 14 of 17 field goal attempts — two of his misses came in terrible conditions in Week 12, his third was blocked in Week 14 — while also being successful on his 12 extra point tries. Folk proved himself the best of the Patriots’ four kickers during the 2019 season.

2020 preview: Folk is scheduled to enter free agency in March, and while there is a chance the Patriots bring him back on a cheap contract it would also not be a surprise to see his free agency develop slowly: he already is 35 years old and has not made more than 90% of his field goal attempts since the 2013 season.

Stephen Gostkowski

Position: Place kicker/Kickoff specialist

Age: 36

Contract status: Under contract through the 2020 season. Gostkowski has a salary cap hit of $5.26 million in 2020.

2019 review: Despite Gostkowski coming off an inconsistent 2018 campaign, the team did not bring any competition on board during the offseason. The veteran therefore entered 2019 as New England’s undisputed place kicker. However, his 14th year in the NFL did not go as planned. Not only did he miss five of his first 23 kicks of the season — going seven of eight on field goals and 11 of 15 on extra points — the veteran also hurt his hip in late September and was placed him on season-ending injured reserve afterwards.

2020 preview: The kicker question will be a big one for the Patriots this spring considering Gostkowski’s recent performances in combination with his age, hip injury and hefty salary cap hit. Add it all up, and it would not be a surprise to see the team bring another option on board this offseason — either through free agency or more likely the draft — to challenge the 36-year-old and potentially even take over his position on the roster.

That being said, finding a reliable replacement can be difficult as the Patriots found out in 2019. Could the team therefore opt to stick with Gostkowski? It certainly is possible, at least through training camp.