Patriots Kicker Stephen Gostkowski: Worth His Weight in Gold

Samer IsmailAnalyst IINovember 10, 2009

FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Kicker Stephen Gostkowski #3 of the New England Patriots celebrates with teammates after he recovered a fumble against the Buffalo Bills in the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium on September 14, 2009 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

At $1,100 an ounce, 210 pounds of gold is worth about $3.7 million.

Patriots placekicker Stephen Gostkowski, whose rookie contract expires this year, could get that much or more as a signing bonus next year.

Gostkowski's performance against the Dolphins, which earned him AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors, aptly demonstrates why he was selected to his first Pro Bowl last year, and is a good candidate to do it again this year.

First, he converted all five of his scoring chances, converting four field goals and an extra point in the Patriots' 27-17 victory. Gostkowski ranks first in scoring per game, with 73 points in eight games, and is on pace to become only the second player in NFL history to score 500 points in his first four seasons in the league.

Second, he managed to neutralize the Dolphins' Ted Ginn Jr., who had returned two kickoffs, each over 100 yards, for touchdowns just a week before. Remarkably, after an offside penalty on James Sanders wiped out a touchback, Gostkowski, backed up to his 25, kicked the ball even farther the second time, again recording a touchback, and keeping Ginn off the field.

Finally, even on Ginn's longest return, it was Gostkowski who corralled Ginn out of bounds, stopping a potential touchdown from even reaching Miami's 40. Gostkowski's willingness to mix it up on returns is no surprise; in the season opener against Buffalo, Gostkowski, jumping in long after the scrum had formed, recovered Leodis McKelvin's fourth-quarter fumble to set up the game-winning drive.

The most remarkable thing about the 25-year-old Gostkowski, though, is that recent history suggests he might still get better. Last year, Gostkowski converted 90 percent of his attempts, the highest rate of his career. The vast majority of players who have converted at a higher rate have done so after their 30th birthdays.

An even scarier thought is that kickers can play well into their 40s: New Orleans Saints kicker John Carney is 45.

Fortunately or unfortunately for New England, Gostkowski's four-year rookie deal runs out this year. Mike Reiss, when he was with the Boston Globe, predicted that as a free agent, Gostkowski could earn about $3 million a year, which would make him one of the highest-paid kickers in NFL history. If he does reach the free market, it wouldn't be surprising at all to see Josh McDaniels and the Denver Broncos make a serious effort to sign Gostkowski, kicking Matt Prater to the curb. After all, McDaniels did just that this season, dumping Mike Leach to sign Patriots long snapper Lonie Paxton.

The other likely player for Gostkowski's services if he reaches free agency would very likely be Indianapolis. Although Adam Vinatieri is signed through 2010, there is no guarantee the Colts will keep him around next year. Vinatieri's inability to handle kickoffs has already forced Indianapolis to bring in a kickoff specialist. The thought of possibly replacing Vinatieri with Gostkowski would have to appeal to them.

Things may not reach that point, though.

If 2010 is uncapped, then Gostkowski, with his four years of service, will only be a restricted free agent. The Patriots could then offer him a tender of $2.4 million, which would require a team to cough up a first-round draft pick if they signed him away, or the highest tender, of $3 million, which would require first- and third-round picks. Either tender would likely keep Gostkowski in New England; as good as Gostkowski is, he isn't worth $3+ million per year and a first-round draft pick.

And in a rather perverse twist, the Patriots might actually be best off slapping the franchise tag on Gostkowski as they did with Vinatieri. The franchise tag only requires the average of the top five salaries the previous season, and requires two first-round picks in compensation. Thus, they would save money and get a higher return if they couldn't keep him. (This would, of course, require that they reach satisfactory arrangements with their other priority free agents, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and guard Logan Mankins.)

The best solution for Patriots fans, of course, would be a long-term deal that keeps Gostkowski in Patriot blue, and piling points on the scoreboard, for years to come. About four months from now, we'll know what happens.