Patriots

Next Patriots kicker? Analyzing best free agents, 2020 NFL Draft prospects

Next Patriots kicker? Analyzing best free agents, 2020 NFL Draft prospects

The 2020 offseason has been one of transition for the New England Patriots, and that extends to the kicker position.

The Patriots have been fortunate to not have to worry about kicking throughout most of the last 20 years. Whether it was Adam Vinatieri or Stephen Gostkowski, the Pats were in good hands when it came time to kick an important field goal. 

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

Changes are in store for 2020, though. Here's a breakdown of the Patriots' kicking situation, and who could step in as the team's new kicker.

Current Situation

The Patriots do not have a kicker on their after Gostkowski was released last month. Gostkowski had filled the starting kicker role since the Patriots drafted him in 2006 to replace a Super Bowl hero in Vinatieri. Gostkowski had a remarkable career and ranks as New England's all-time leading scorer. He suffered a season-ending hip injury early in the 2019 campaign and only played in four games.

The Patriots signed a few kickers after Gostkowski's injury, and veteran Nick Folk ultimately won the job. He played in seven games for the Patriots and converted on 14 of 17 field goal attempts, including a perfect 12-for-12 on extra points. Folk remains unsigned as an unrestricted free agent (more on that below).

Free Agents

The quality of free agent kickers is poor. There aren't even many of them on the market. In fact, Spotrac has four kickers listed on their free agent tracker. Let's examine each player.

Stephen Gostkowski: The Patriots recently released him, although he told NBC Sports Boston's Tom E. Curran that he does plan to play in the 2020 season.
Adam Vinatieri: The return of Vinatieri, who won three Super Bowl titles and made some of the most iconic kicks in league history with the Patriots, would make for a great story. Vinatieri really struggled last season, though. He converted on just 17 of his 25 field goal attempts and missed six of his 28 extra point attempts. His field goal and extra point percentages were by far the worst of any single season in his Hall of Fame career. A Vinatieri reunion with the Patriots simply doesn't make sense.
Ryan Succop: Succop played in 12 games for the Tennessee Titans last season due to injury, and he was released by the AFC South club last month. The veteran kicker made only one of his six field goal attempts in 2019. Signing him would be a huge risk for the Pats.
Nick Folk: Folk played well for the Patriots. He missed only three kicks, and he converted both of his field goal attempts and his one extra point try during the Patriots' playoff loss to the Titans. Folk easily is the best free agent option available to the Patriots, especially if they're looking for a veteran to fill the starting kicker job.

Listen and subscribe to Tom E. Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast:

NFL Draft History

Here's a look at the kickers drafted by the Patriots in the last 30 years. It's a short list, as you probably would imagine.

2006, Round 4, 118th: Stephen Gostkowski (Memphis)
2001, Round 7, 216th: Owen Pochman (BYU)
1993, Round 5, 113th: Scott Sisson (Georgia Tech)
*Vinatieri was signed by the Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 1996. 

Not many kickers have been drafted over the last five years. Here's a look at those selections.

2019
Round 5, 145th, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Matt Gay, Utah
Round 5, 170th, Cleveland Browns: Austin Seibert, Oklahoma

2018
Round 5, 167th, Minnesota Vikings: Daniel Karlson, Auburn
Round 7, 229th, Miami Dolphins: Jason Sanders, New Mexico

2017
Round 5, 153rd, Cincinnati Bengals: Jake Elliott, Memphis
Round 7, 224th, Cleveland Browns: Zane Gonzalez, Arizona State
Round 7, 233rd, Carolina Panthers: Harrison Butker, Georgia Tech

2016
Round 2, 59th, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Roberto Aguayo, Florida State

2015
None

Harrison Butker is the best kicker who's been drafted over the last five years. Despite being drafted by the Panthers, he never attempted a kick for them. Butker signed with the Chiefs in 2017 and has become one of the league's top kickers. He led the league with 34 made field goals last season.

Every kicker who ranked in the top five in field goals made during the 2019 season either went undrafted or does not currently play for the team that drafted them.

2020 NFL Draft Prospects

These three kickers are worth considering in April's draft. Blankenship is the best option for the Patriots. He not only posted impressive stats in four years at Georgia, he also kicked in a lot important moments during bowl games and the College Football Playoff.

Rodrigo Blankenship, Georgia
2019 Stats: 27 FGM, 33 FGA, 46-for-46 XP

Tyler Bass, Georgia Southern
2019 Stats: 20 FGM, 28 FGA, 36-for-36 XP

Jet Toner, Stanford
2019 Stats: 12 FGM, 12 FGA, 13-for-13 XP

Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

As much as we'd love to talk football, it has taken a back seat to the conversations that need to be had about George Floyd's murder and the racial injustices that remain prevalent in the United States.

The "Black Lives Matter" movement has spread across the country with protests advocating for justice and racial equality. It has impacted the world of sports, with countless athletes using their platforms to let their voices be heard. NFL players even sent a strong message to the league with a video stating what they wanted to hear it say regarding the oppression of African Americans.

Click here to enter NBC Sports Boston’s Podcast Sweepstakes for your chance to win a desktop Bluetooth speaker/microphone!

On a brand new episode of the Next Pats Podcast, New England Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater joined Phil Perry to discuss the state of the nation.

Listen and subscribe to the Next Pats Podcast:

Slater covered a variety of important topics in the episode. But one that particularly stood out was his explanation of how if the country operated like an NFL locker room, it would be a more inclusive place.

"It is a very unique place. A locker room setting -- you know, if our country operated and moved like a locker room, man it would be a beautiful thing," Slater said. "I'm not saying it's perfect, I'm not saying we've got it all figured out, but what a unique space where people from all different walks of life, different belief systems and things of that nature to work toward a common goal.

"And there's automatic respect that comes with the fact that you have a jersey and a helmet, and you're one of us. So I'm appreciative of that and I think now is a time for us to maybe forge those bonds even deeper. Guys that maybe hear personal stories and maybe experience this from their teammates have a different appreciation for why that guy is the way he is, why he does the things that he does. And I think ultimately that's going to lead to deeper and more fruitful relationships."

If anyone knows what a healthy, inclusive locker room environment looks like, it's Slater. The 34-year-old has been a captain for the Patriots for nearly a decade and has been an admirable leader throughout his stellar NFL career.

Slater also discussed how head coach Bill Belichick has been involved in the team's discussions about recent events, his experiences living as a black man in America, and much more.

Check out more of the Next Pats Podcast on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast Network or watch on YouTube below:

Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

What if? What if Rob Gronkowski had announced his retirement just a few days sooner, allowing the Patriots to make a legitimate play for free agent Jared Cook? 

By the time the man who is arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history decided to hang 'em up (briefly), Cook was already making plans to join the Saints. He ended up eighth among tight ends with 705 receiving yards and second with nine touchdowns.

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

Meanwhile the Patriots were left to piece together that spot with the likes of Matt LaCosse, Ben Watson and Ryan Izzo.

Reluctant to invest in young players at the position since taking Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010 — since then they'd only drafted Izzo (2018, seventh round), Lee Smith (2011, fifth round) and A.J. Derby (2015, sixth round) — the Patriots had arguably the least-productive tight end group in the NFL last season: 37 catches for 419 yards and two touchdowns.

They've attempted to remedy that situation. In this year's draft, they traded up to land two intriguing talents in the third round.

UCLA's Devin Asiasi is a do-it-all player with the size to move people on the line of scrimmage and the body control to draw comparisons to some of the game's elites at that position. Dalton Keene is an athletic option with experience playing out of the backfield at Virginia Tech who could be the key to unlocking snap-to-snap unpredictability for Josh McDaniels' personnel packages.

Do they enter the equation as the immediate No. 1 and 2 options there? Let's reset the depth chart.

LOCK ‘EM IN

Asiasi. Keene. That's it. Those are the locks. Given the output, it should come as no surprise that there's not a player from last year's roster who comes into this season guaranteed to have a regular-season role. 

ON THE BUBBLE

LaCosse makes sense here. He could potentially end up on the roster as a 2020 version of Alge Crumpler — a veteran who can help guide two promising rookies — because his experience level dwarfs that of others on the depth chart.

However, his experience level isn't exactly overwhelming (33 career games). If he can't stay healthy, as was the case last season, or can't win a job, he'd save the Patriots $1.3 million on the salary cap if released in camp.

Listen and subscribe to the Next Pats Podcast:

LONG SHOTS

Izzo will have to open eyes in camp or become a special teams staple in order to have a chance to make an impact. Though he showed flashes of being a capable receiver last season, that part of his game was lacking consistency. As a blocker? It was there that he was thought to be a potential contributor when drafted out of Florida State two years ago. But according to Pro Football Focus, his 44.9 run-blocking grade was second-lowest among all players at the position in 2019.

Undrafted rookies Jake Burt from Boston College and Rashod Berry from Ohio State also have to be considered in this category. Burt looks like an in-line option at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds. Berry actually played both on the defensive line and at tight end as a senior. He finished his career with 17 receptions. 

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

In what was considered a tight end class short on game-changing talent, Asiasi might've been the most gifted. Notre Dame's Cole Kmet was the first tight end taken in the draft, going off the board in the second round as the "safest" of this year's tight end crop, according to several evaluators. But when it comes to physical ability? Asiasi can "do it all," one tight ends coach told me.

Some questions about Asiasi's makeup lingered into draft weekend, helping him stay undrafted through almost three full rounds, but the Patriots may have found themselves a steal if Asiasi can make good on his on-the-field promise. Asiasi's trainer Dave Spitz, who has also worked with Browns tight end Austin Hooper and Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, spoke to NBC Sports Boston earlier this offseason.

"He has the catch radius of Austin," Spitz said. "He has the body control and awareness of Zach. And he, I think, has more bend, more wiggle, than both of them. He's a beautiful combination."

X-FACTOR

Asiasi might be the most talented addition the Patriots have made at this position in years, but Keene's versatility makes him an interesting queen-on-the-chess-board piece for Bill Belichick and McDaniels. He has enough size (6-foot-4, 253 pounds) to play in-line as a "Y" tight end. He has the movement skills to serve as more of an "F" option. He's played in the backfield before. He's served as a lead-blocker like a fullback. There are a variety of ways in which he can be deployed.

Why does that matter? Perhaps the Patriots want to use their 12-personnel package with one back and two tight ends. Perhaps, because tight ends are oftentimes glorified receivers these days, a defense will respond to that two-tight end set by matching it with an extra safety instead of a linebacker. If that's the case, Keene could flex in as a fullback and the Patriots could run a 21-personnel look at a lighter defense for an advantage. If the defense keeps linebackers on the field to check Asiasi and/or Keene, the Patriots could use them in the passing game where their athleticism should give them an advantage over a traditional second-level defender. Options.

That's what Keene provides, making him an X-factor in the truest sense if he can handle a wide range of alignments and responsibilities early in his career.