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Patriots 2021 free agency profile: Nick Folk could have a solid market coming off an impressive season

Related: Patriots free agency profile: C James Ferentz

Arizona Cardinals v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Coming off a disappointing 2020 campaign, the New England Patriots are headed into a pivotal offseason: they need to rebuild a roster that went just 7-9 last year and is in need of some major upgrades across the board. Part of those could be bringing back the players scheduled to enter free agency — and there are quite a few of them.

All in all, 26 players that were with New England in one way last season are in need of a new contract. Among them is place kicker Nick Folk, who is an unrestricted free agent and will therefore hit the open market on March 17.

Hard facts

Name: Nick Folk

Position: Kicker

Jersey number: 6

Opening day age: 36

Size: 6-foot-1, 220 pounds

Contract status: Unrestricted free agent

Experience

What is his experience? After serving as both a place kicker and a punter during his time at the University of Arizona, Folk entered the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick by the Dallas Cowboys in 2007. Finding immediate success at the pro level, the rookie was voted to the Pro Bowl in his first year and went on to appear in 47 games for the team before being let go again following a disappointing 2009 season. However, his release did open the door for him to join the New York Jets with whom he spent a combined six years.

Folk played a total of 107 regular season and playoff games for the Jets, and with the exception of a stint on injured reserve in 2015 proved himself a reliable kicker by making 82 percent of his field goal attempts in green and white. The veteran went on to join 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 followed by the Patriots picking him up as a free agent during the 2019 season and later re-signing him for 2020 as well.

What did his 2020 season look like? Despite playing some solid football for the Patriots in 2019, Folk’s trip to unrestricted free agency was a slow one in 2020 that lasted more than five months. While he did remain in active conversation with New England throughout the process and also had a tryout with the Cleveland Browns at one point in August, he did not sign a new contract until later that same month: Folk returned to the Patriots on a one-year pact to compete against fifth-round rookie Justin Rohrwasser.

While both players were initially released on roster cutdown day and signed to the practice squad, Folk eventually emerged as the winner of that competition by being promoted back to the active roster ahead of opening day. The veteran remained on the team for all 16 games and played some impressive football along the way: he made 26 of his 28 field goal attempts for a success rate of 92.9 percent and also was successful on 90.9 percent of his extra point kicks by splitting the uprights on 30 of 33 attempts.

His combined accuracy in both categories — 91.8 percent (56 of 61) — had him ranked ninth in the league for the 2020 season. For comparison, ex-Patriot Stephen Gostkowski finished as just the 21st most accurate kicker in football (86.5%). Folk’s consistency certainly was impressive, but so was his ability to perform under pressure: he made game-winning kicks from 50-plus yards away as time expired in the fourth quarter not once but twice.

In Week 9 against his former team, the Jets, Folk nailed a 51-yarder to help lift the Patriots over their division rivals with a final score of 30-27. Three weeks later against the Arizona Cardinals, he repeated the feat: he was good from 50 yards out to give New England a 20-17 victory. After each of his game-winning kicks — which showed his leg strange after he was primarily a mid-range kicker in 2019 — the ultra-reliable Folk was recognized as the AFC’s Special Teams Player of the Week.

Free agency preview

What is his contract history? Since joining the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick in 2007, Folk has signed numerous contracts in the league. He started with his standard four-year rookie pact in Dallas, and later signed multiple deals in New York — the largest of which a four-year, $12 million contract extension in 2014. While he has been playing on one-year pacts recently, his estimated contractual career earnings still exceed $16 million according to Spotrac.

Which teams might be in the running? Despite his age, numerous teams might be interested in bringing a player of Folk’s experience and consistency aboard. Among those who could look at upgrading their place kicker spot this year are the Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions, Los Angeles Chargers, Minnesota Vikings or Philadelphia Eagles — all of them teams that struggled in the kicking department in 2020.

Why should he be expected back? Even thought New England invested a fifth-round draft pick in Justin Rohrwasser last year, Folk has proven himself the more stable presence. His numbers over the last one-and-a-half seasons — all while kicking in the notoriously challenging Gillette Stadium conditions — show how reliable he has been and the kind of value he might have for the team despite his comparatively advanced age.

Why should he be expected to leave? Folk is expected to have a solid free agency market this year and there is a chance that his price tag might be pushed beyond New England’s liking. With the aforementioned Rohrwasser and practice squad pickup Roberto Aguayo in the pipeline as well, the team might decide to roll the dice with the two youngsters instead of overextending to bring Folk back — a player who himself might be interested in leaving considering that he spends the entire season away from his family in Texas.

What is his projected free agency outcome? New England will likely try to keep Folk, but only on its own terms. Given that and the developmental prospects already under contract for 2021, there is a realistic chance that the 36-year-old eventually moves on for more job security elsewhere. That said, the Patriots-Folk marriage has proven itself a productive one — another one-year deal like the one he signed last offseason could therefore be in the best interest for both parties.