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Patriots’ kicker competition comes down to one decision: Experience versus upside

Related: Bill Belichick sees the Patriots’ leadership ‘extend beyond the captain position’

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

Two players, one spot on the 53-man roster — that’s the situation the New England Patriots are currently in regarding their place kicker position. Ahead of Saturday’s cutdown deadline, the team will have to decide whether to move forward with rookie Justin Rohrwasser or with veteran Nick Folk.

Judged by the training camp practices open to the media, Folk appears to have the upper hand. The 35-year-old was more consistent than the youngster despite lacking the same impressive leg strength. That said, practice performance is only one factor to consider as an unusually talkative Bill Belichick pointed out during his media conference call on Friday.

“I think that is pretty close gap,” said the Patriots’ head coach when asked about his thoughts on the competition between Rohrwasser and Folk.

The decision heading into cutdown day is therefore centered around one simple question: Do you go with experience and proven production, or with upside and long-term potential? Folk, who is entering his 13th season in the NFL, falls under the first category coming off a solid half-year with the Patriots and a steady training camp outing. Rohrwasser, meanwhile, is in the latter even though he struggled at times over the last few weeks.

“Every team that I’ve ever been on, this has come up, where you have a veteran player with experience and a very accomplished career, with a younger player with potentially a long career ahead of him that has less experience,” Belichick said. “At this particular point in time, you just have to see where you feel like the competition is but then also look at it and say, ‘Okay, where are things going to be halfway through the season? Where are things going to be a year from now or maybe two years from now?’ That changes sometimes the evaluation.”

Belichick, who spent eight years of his coaching career working in various special teams roles in Detroit, Denver and New York, has been confronted with this question before — going all the way back to his first coaching gig in the NFL with the then-Baltimore Colts.

“I can remember those conversations going back to 1975 when I was with the Colts and Coach [Ted] Marchibroda,” said Belichick. “It was the same thing then: this guy with experience versus this guy with inexperience. I didn’t really understand it at that point, but at that point in time, the experienced guy in those conversations, was always better but then in the long run that wasn’t always the case.”

There are some more recent examples as well, of course, and Belichick went on name three of them: running backs James White and Shane Vereen as well as quarterback Tom Brady. All three players saw little to no action during their first year in the NFL but were kept on the roster nevertheless because of their developmental upside and long-term potential. In all three cases, the Patriots’ willingness to hold onto them paid major dividends down the road.

“Those are projections and there is no certainty there, but when you look at players that we’ve had on our team, James White would be a good example of a player that didn’t play his rookie year. I think he was only active for a game or two. Obviously [Tom] Brady never played,” he said. “So, if you evaluate players where they are at one point in time and then evaluate them a year later, sometimes you can have a drastic change.

“In those two cases I’m glad we didn’t make the decision based on where they were at the end of their rookie training camp, to not have them on our team on a longer-term view. Not everybody falls into that category but there’s two good examples. Shane Vereen would be another one. Guys that didn’t have production at one point in time but then in a relatively short period of time, that changed, maybe expectedly, maybe unexpectedly.”

Belichick also pointed out that there are other factors impacting the decision making process. If the rookie player is already ahead of the veteran, for example, the decision would be an easy one in the youngsters favor. That does not appear to be the case with Folk and Rohrwasser, however: Folk seemed more reliable despite being added relatively late in the process (he was officially re-signed on August 24).

Given the nature of their position, the Patriots are therefore faced with a challenging decision.

“Those two lines are going to cross at some point between the experienced guy coming close to the end of his career and the inexperienced guy ascending to a higher level — when and how does that happen?” said Belichick. “Position is a factor. Again, this is not like you can carry seven defensive linemen. This is a kicker, so that decision is a little bit different than it is at some other spots where we can play more than one guy.

“It’s really challenging for every coach, every team. It’s not like college where you’re going to have all the players all the time. Here you have to make choices. You can’t keep them all. You have to make a decision. When you make that decision, either way you know you could be right or you could be wrong, depending on how fast or slow those tangents pass.”

The Patriots will have more decisions like this to make before 4 pm’s deadline. Kicker, however, takes a special place because of the fact that only one of the contestants will be able to survive on the 53-man squad.

“That’s the hardest part of this time of year is those types of decisions.”