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Patriots free agency outlook: New England’s kicking game operation could undergo some changes

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Related: Patriots free agency outlook: Devin McCourty has to be one of New England’s priorities

New York Jets v New England Patriots Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ 2019 season came to a premature end when the team was eliminated in the wild card round of the playoffs. In order to return to the top of the NFL mountain, the organization will therefore have to turn the page and build a competitive roster to get back into a position again to compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. A big part of building that roster is successfully maneuvering through free agency.

If judged by the list of free agents to be, New England’s front office will be busy over the next few days before the new league year and free agency are officially kicked off on March 18. Also over the next few days, we will take a look at each individual position on the Patriots’ current roster to find out which players are headed for the open market, whether or not they should be expected back, and who might be brought in from the outside.

Today, the series continues with the specialists.

Current position group

Under contract: Stephen Gostkowski, Jake Bailey, Joe Cardona

Free agents: Nick Folk (UFA)

Free agency profile: Nick Folk

Opening day age: 35

2019 salary cap hit: $151,765

2019 statistics: 8 games; 14 of 17 field goal attempts; 12 of 12 extra point attempts

Experience: Folk entered the league as a sixth-round draft pick by the Dallas Cowboys in 2007 and was voted to the Pro Bowl in his rookie season. He was let go again in 2010, however, and went on to join the New York Jets with whom he spent a combined six seasons. He joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2017, but ended his season prematurely due to injury before spending 2018 out of football. A stint in the short-lived AAF was finally followed by the Patriots picking him up as a free agent midway through the 2019 season.

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

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. New England might therefore opt to let pieces elsewhere fall into place before making a decision whether or not to re-sign Folk as a potential competition or maybe even replacement for Stephen Gostkowski.

Outside free agents

Dan Bailey, Minnesota Vikings: Bailey might be the best kicker available in free agency this year, and as such he is expected to be a popular player. For good reason: the 32-year-old made 27 of 29 field goal attempts in 2019 and also was successful on 40 of 44 extra points — all while also performing kickoffs.

Mason Crosby, Green Bay Packers: Crosby may already be 35 years old, but the long-time Packer is coming off a strong season that might just have been the best of his career: he hit 22 of 24 field goal tries and made all but one of his 41 point-after tries. Crosby, unlike Folk last year, also did kickoffs.

Greg Zuerlein, Los Angeles Rams: A first-team All-Pro selection in 2017, Zuerlein’s field goal percentage decreased each of the last two seasons: he made 95% of his kicks back then but hit only 87.1% and 72.7% in 2018 and 2019, respectively. That being said, the veteran was successful on all 42 of his PATs last year.

Verdict

While punter Jake Bailey and long snapper Joe Cardona are locks to be on the Patriots’ roster for the 2020 season, the place kicker position is a different story: Stephen Gostkowski ended last year on injured reserve, is already 36 years old, and had an up-and-down campaign before his hip injury. Furthermore, the Patriots would save around $3 million against their salary cap in case they part ways with their long-time kicker.

In case New England opts to go that route, the team might look to the free agency market and later the draft to find a potential successor. The latter route seems more feasible in the long term, but the Patriots might be more comfortable with a veteran option in the fold as well — whether Stephen Gostkowski or an addition through the open market.