Like most teams, the New England Patriots experienced some major roster turnover this offseason, including the departure of stalwart WR Wes Welker. But is it possible the Pats are looking for a replacement for their leading scorer, kicker Stephen Gostkowski?
On the surface, the notion seems far-fetched. After all, Gostkowski came just two points shy of the franchise's all-time single-season scoring record last year (he totalled 153 points; Gino Cappelletti notched 155 in 1964).
But take a deeper look and you'll see his roster spot may not be as secure as it seems.
First, there's the issue of his cap hit. Gostkowski's base salary next season is $2.5 million, the third-highest salary among NFL placekickers. According to PatsCap.com (the best source for updated Patriots salary cap information), the Patriots will save close to $1.4 million off the 2013 cap if they release Gostkowski.
While there aren't many impact free agents left on the market, a few (like John Abraham and Israel Idonije) remain. If the Pats decided not to pull the trigger on any big free agents, they could save the cap space for a mid-season acquisition to buffer an injury, or even carry over the extra cap space to the 2014 cap.
Of course, in order to cut Gostkowski, New England would need a replacement at the placekicker position. That's where 2011 Notre Dame graduate David Ruffer, recently signed as an undrafted free agent by the Patriots, comes in.
Ruffer had a rough (pun intended) senior year (which is why he's still a free agent), but his 2010 junior year was among the best in college football. He set a school record with 18 straight made field goals, finishing 18-of-19 including a perfect seven-of-seven from beyond 40 yards. Ruffer was recognized as a finalist for the Lou Groza Award, given to the best placekicker in college football.
It's clear Ruffer was brought in to compete with Gostkowski—teams don't typically carry two kickers. If he performs well before roster cuts, the much-more-affordable Ruffer could give Gostkowski a run for his money—and roster spot.
You might be wondering why the Pats would consider going with the cheap option at such a critical position. After all, as we saw in Week 2 last year, one kick can be the difference between a win and a loss. If nothing else, surely Adam Vinatieri demonstrated the value of a clutch kicker.
There's no reason to pinch pennies on an elite kicker; he can be crucial to the success of your team.
The problem? Gostkowski isn't an elite kicker, despite the fact he's being paid like one.
First, let's talk about kickoffs.
As I mentioned before, Gostkowski is the third-highest paid placekicker in the NFL. Of the top 10 highest paid placekickers, seven of their teams finished in the top 10 in touchback percentage.
The Patriots finished 17th.
If you prefer average kickoff distance to touchback percentage, Gostkowski finished 16th among players with more than 25 kickoffs. Not great.
As for field-goal percentage, Gostkowski wasn't any better, ranking 19th in the NFL. The only player among the top 10 highest paid kickers who was worse than Gostkowski in both touchback percentage and field-goal percentage was Mason Crosby, and he really shouldn't have an NFL kicking job (he's got competition, anyway).
So, Gostkowski isn't elite, and at 29 years of age, he likely isn't getting any better.
At this point in the offseason, the Pats may not find a suitable replacement for their kicker. But if they decide Ruffer (or some other undrafted signee) can provide the same production for cheaper, the Patriots may decide to cut bait with Gostkowski and start anew at a crucial special teams position.