Quick quiz: Which of these Patriots has the highest salary cap hit for 2013?
(A) Defensive back Devin McCourty
(B) Placekicker Stephen Gostkowski
(C) Offensive tackle Nate Solder
(D) Tight end Rob Gronkowski
If you chose Gronkowski, that's not a bad guess, but the big money from his deal doesn't kick in until 2016.
As you might have guessed from the title of this article, the correct answer is kicker Stephen Gostkowski.
Back in 2010, when Gostkowski was on a restricted free agent deal, the Patriots, seemingly out of the blue, gave him a four-year extension averaging $3.5 million per year. At the time, it was the largest contract ever given to a kicker outside of Oakland.
As a result of that deal, Gostkowski has a cap hit of about $3.4 million for 2013, and $3.8 million for 2014. About $800,000 per year of that money is a prorated signing bonus, better known as "dead money."
As a Patriots fans, I've seen numerous references—many on Patriots forums, but even here on Bleacher Report—that the Patriots should cut Gostkowski and replace him with a rookie.
There are two main arguments in favor of cutting Gostkowski.
1. They'll save money.
As noted above, the Patriots could save money by replacing Gostkowski. His salary cap hits over the next two years total $7.2 million. A rookie would cost approximately $1 million over that time span.
2. Rookies are better than ever.
According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, four of the top 10 rookie performances, in terms of field goal percentage, have been in the last two seasons: Blair Walsh and Justin Tucker this year, and Alex Henery and Dan Bailey last year. It's also hard to forget the heroics of St. Louis Rams rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein. It's possible that there is a better kicker than Gostkowski available this year.
Should the Patriots look to replace Gostkowski this year?
On the other hand, there are even better arguments against cutting Gostkowski.
1. They won't save that much money.
The main argument for cutting Gostkowski, financially speaking, is that it will help them get better free agents. Though, the Patriots might save as little as $1 million this year. Because of the salary cap rules, cutting Gostkowski this year might move his 2014 guaranteed money onto the 2013 cap. In other words, instead of $800,000 in dead money in 2013 and 2014, they might have $1.6 million in dead money in 2013. So, in all, including the money to sign a new kicker, the Patriots might save as little as $1.3 million by cutting Gostkowski.
2. Gostkowski is a known quantity.
No, he's not perfect, but the Patriots have been working with him for seven years. They know what he can do, and what he can't. And by the way, even though he missed half the 2010 season with a leg injury, he's still on pace to become the first player in NFL history to score 1,000 points in under eight seasons. Of course, that has as much to do with the Patriots offense as with Gostkowski.
He's also, as Bill Belichick would say, "a football player who happens to be a kicker." His fumble recovery that helped the Patriots win their 2009 season opener against Buffalo is but one example of his willingness to get physical.
3. He's really, really good at kickoffs.
Gostkowski is capable of booming kickoffs. The best example of this was the 2009 home game against Miami. After a James Sanders penalty nullified a touchback from the 30, Gostkowski kicked off from the Patriots 25, and he sent the ball out the back of the end zone—over 85 yards.
Moreover, Gostkowski kicks off the way the Patriots want him to: He can get touchbacks, or he can kick it short to allow teams to try return it. Even with the Patriots' abysmal performance against San Francisco in the return game, the Patriots were still third in the NFL in return yardage, allowing just 20.4 yards per return. There's no guarantee that a rookie could duplicate that performance.
4. Most importantly, history suggests Gostkowski's best years may lie ahead.
Since the NFL merger, there have been 68 instances where kickers have both attempted at least 20 field goals and converted at least 90 percent of them.
The majority of those—42 in fact—have come in the last decade. Even more remarkably, 44 are from kickers who were over the age of 30 at the time. In fact, 10 of those seasons came from kickers over the age of 38.
And, by the way, this isn't simply from teams going conservative in the kicking game. Even some of the oldest kickers on that list have attempted numerous field goals from 40 and even 50 yards out.
Given that Gostkowski's already made his way onto that list (back in 2008), there's no reason to think that as so many other kickers have done, he can't make more entries on that list in the future.
Gostkowski's extension was surprising. It's still not clear why the Patriots made that move. But obviously, they felt that it was a fair contract, and they didn't have any competing offers to worry about at the time (they did it in August 2010, when he was still a restricted free agent).
So it seems unlikely that the Patriots would cut Gostkowski without, at a minimum, trying to either restructure his contract or, perhaps, give him an extension that converts some of his existing salary into signing bonuses. Thanks to salary cap rules, an extension could reduce his 2013 salary cap hit just as well as would cutting him.
All in all, I think that Gostkowski's roster spot isn't 100 percent secure—few NFL spots ever are—but I don't think he has to worry about losing it unless he suddenly loses his ability to kick.