This is part of a series of articles examining questions the New England Patriots will have to answer in the run-up to free agency on March 11.
Most fantasy football players know that New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski gets to kick lots and lots of field goals and extra points.
When Patriots head coach Bill Belichick makes roster decisions, though, fantasy football doesn't matter. Xs and Os, as well as dollars and cents, do.
At $3.8 million, Gostkowski's 2014 salary cap hit is the ninth-largest on the team, according to PatsCap.com. Could that fact cost Gostkowski his roster spot in 2014?
The case for cutting or trading Gostkowski
The case for cutting or trading Gostkowski rests on three questions.
First, can the Patriots get better use for their money? If the Patriots cut (or trade) Gostkowski, that would free up his $2.9 million salary for 2014. The Patriots would need to sign a replacement for Gostkowski, so that would cost at least the 2014 rookie salary, which is $420,000. The net savings would be about $2.5 million.
That money would come in handy in helping to land potential free agents, or in retaining their own free agents, especially wide receiver Julian Edelman and cornerback Aqib Talib.
Second, the Patriots need to ask if the NFL plans to devalue the kicking game. Last month, Commissioner Goodell told NFL Network's Rich Eisen on Total Access that the league would consider abolishing the extra point, and the Pro Bowl eliminated kickoffs entirely.
If those moves ultimately become permanent, that might lead Belichick to decide that no kicker is worth a contract like Gostkowski's. (Gostkowski ranked fourth in touchback percentage in 2013, and when opponents did return his kicks, they averaged fewer than 21 yards per return.)
Finally, could the Patriots get something in a trade for Gostkowski? He would be an upgrade over most teams' kickers, but would teams be willing to give up a draft pick high enough for Belichick to pull the trigger? Or might he simply get cut, as punter Zoltan Mesko was in 2013? (This is admittedly a remote possibility, but you never know; Belichick did trade Drew Bledsoe within the division.)
The case for keeping Gostkowski
There are two main reasons for keeping Gostkowski.
The most obvious is that, after eight years, the Patriots trust Gostkowski's leg. It's not surprising, since according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, he is the only player in NFL history to cross the 1,000-point plateau in his first eight seasons in the league.
Gostkowski attempted six kicks of 50-plus yards in 2013, making five of them. In his previous seven seasons, he attempted just 10 such kicks.
And while the word "clutch" gets thrown around a lot in sports, Gostkowski has truly given the Patriots his best work late in games, as shown here:
|Gostkowski's kicks, 2011–2013|
|Year||First three quarters||Fourth quarter/OT|
|2011||27/32 (84.4%)||6/6 (100%)|
|2012||19/24 (79.2%)||13/14 (92.9%)|
|2013||23/26 (88.5%)||16/16 (100%)|
|Totals||69/82 (84.1%)||35/36 (97.2%)|
In three seasons, he's only missed one kick in the fourth quarter or overtime. If the Patriots decided to move on from Gostkowski, would they be able to have as much confidence in his replacement?
For that matter, would that replacement be able to make plays such as Gostkowski's 2009 fumble recovery in Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills, or his onside kick in 2013 against the Cleveland Browns, both of which were crucial to improbable comeback wins?
Another reason the Patriots should keep Gostkowski is that trying to replace him would be a gamble in and of itself. Pro-Football-Reference.com shows that since 1970, a kicker has had a season with 30-plus field-goal attempts while making at least 90 percent of them a total of 37 times. The median age for that feat is 32. Gostkowski, who's done it twice, will only be 30 when the 2014 season starts.
The other question is how likely it is the Patriots will be able to replace Gostkowski's production. Yes, Baltimore's Justin Tucker has been sensational since arriving in the league, but for every Justin Tucker, there's also a Randy Bullock.
In a preseason conference call last August, Belichick told reporters "I have confidence that [Gostkowski]’s one of the best kickers in the league." Belichick has had plenty of faith in Gostkowski in fact. Since beating out Martin Gramatica to win his spot in 2006, Gostkowski has faced no serious preseason competition for his roster spot.
Moreover, the Patriots can give Gostkowski a long-term extension, similar to the one they gave him in 2010, while still reducing his cap hit for 2014.
Given his performance in recent years, it's unlikely the Patriots will cut Gostkowski. The most likely outcome, therefore, is that the Patriots will keep Gostkowski, and, in fact, sign him to a long-term extension this offseason.