Patriots have options but Gostkowski hopes to continue to kick off

Patriots have options but Gostkowski hopes to continue to kick off

FOXBORO -- When the Patriots selected Jake Bailey in the fifth round last month, they got someone who could punt and kick. He'd done both throughout his career at Stanford. While the assumption was that Bill Belichick would ask Bailey to focus on punting a pro, Bailey said he'd jump at the chance to do any kicking off for his new team as well.

"I would love to be able to do that," he said. "It's been a part of my game ever since I've been at Stanford. It's something I would like to continue. A lot of NFL teams really value a punter that can also kick off because it kind of helps out the kicker if he's getting old or something or doesn't have a strong kickoff leg, so whatever happens, I'll be super happy with it."

Bailey was a kickoff specialist to start his career at Stanford, punting only situationally. But even as his punting duties increased, he remained the kickoff choice for coach David Shaw. Bailey had 60 touchbacks on 72 kickoffs last year (83 percent). In 2017, he had 58 of 83 kicks go for touchbacks (70 percent), playing primarily in kicker-friendly Pac-12 locales.

The Patriots have a kicker, of course, in Stephen Gostkowski. The 35-year-old just signed a two-year deal to remain with the club this offseason.

I asked him on Tuesday, in light of the Bailey selection, if he'd benefit from a break from handling kickoff duties. He said he'd love the opportunity to continue to kicking off, as he has since he replaced Adam Vinatieri as a fourth-round pick in 2006.

"I personally love kicking off," he said. "It gives me another chance to get on the field. The hardest thing about kicking field goals sometimes is you don't know when you're going to play. You don't know what situation you're going to be in. I remember in the Atlanta Super Bowl, it's two weeks of the biggest buildup of your life, and I didn't step on the field until there was two seconds left in the second quarter.

"Those are the things that you have to deal with in my position. The more I get on the field, the more comfortable I am. I love kicking off. Just like anyone else, after a while, you're like, 'Man, I don't want to practice this.' But I love kicking off and I want to try to do it as long as I physically can do it."

The Patriots ranked last in the league last year in average opposing starting field position following a kickoff, according to Football Outsiders, with offenses beginning their drives at the New England 27-yard line (27.11 average). That was a drastic departure from where they ranked in 2017, when they were the No. 2 team in the league in opposing starting field position following a kickoff (23.31). In 2016, they were No. 3 in the league.

Before the league changed touchback rules to give receiving teams the ball at the 25-yard line as opposed to the 20-yard line on touchbacks, in 2015, the Patriots were still near the top of the league in kickoff effectiveness. They ranked third that year in opposing starting field position following a kick (20.20).

How to explain the results in 2018? Before the season, there was another rule change to kickoffs that didn't allow teams to get running starts before kicks, making it harder to build speed and pin an opponent deep -- something at which the Patriots had become adept in seasons prior. There were also personnel changes made mid-season with veterans like Albert McClellan and Ramon Humber brought aboard and given roster spots to improve what was at times a porous coverage unit.

It's difficult, if not impossible, to gauge how Gostkowski's kicks themselves factored into his team's average starting field position number last year without knowing exactly when he was told to kick it short -- intentionally encouraging a return -- or when to go for a touchback. But here are some numbers to consider . . .

* According to Pro Football Focus, among the 31 kickers who played at least 12 games in 2018, Gostkowski ranked 19th in average kickoff distance (65.8 yards).

* Gostkowski's percentage of kicks returned (45.2) was sixth-highest.

* Late in the year, outdoors, Gostkowski's touchback percentage was 23 percent: Five of his six kicks in a frigid AFC title game in Kansas City were returned and the Chiefs had an average starting field position of the 28.7 yard line; six of his eight kicks in the Divisional Round against the Chargers were brought back, and they had an average start of their own 26.5; in regular-season contests at Gillette Stadium against the Bills and Jets to finish off the year, Gostkowski had nine of 12 kicks returned.

* At the Super Bowl, inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Gostkowski had three of four kicks go for touchbacks.

* Gostkowski's 23 percent touchback rate (six touchbacks on 26 kicks) in his final four outdoor games of the season is less than half the rate he boasted in his final four outdoor games of the season in 2017 (50 percent; 12 touchbacks on 24 kicks, all at Gillette Stadium).

I asked Gostkowski, as he prepares to go into his 14th season, if at this stage of his career he spends as much time thinking about the kickoff portion of his job as he does the field goal portion.

"I would say you always practice field goals a lot more than kickoffs," he said. "I would equate kicking off to like hitting on the driving range. We work on things like hitting it short, hitting it in the corner, hitting it high. But at the end of the day, I'm really just swinging as hard as I can. Field goals. are so much more attention to detail that goes into it. Plus, if a kicker were to get injured, nine times out of 10 it's on a kickoff.

"It's one of those things, you gotta kick off enough to where you're comfortable with your rhythm and your steps. But you could go out there and kick field goals all day. You kick too many kickoffs, it'll tire you out a little bit more so you have to watch out how much you actually do kickoff-wise. I know a guy like Thomas Morstead who used to do it, he was like, 'I could punt all day, but kickoffs you just can't do all day.' It's one of those things. It's all effort. Balls to the wall. Then field goal is more like a smooth stroke."

There are plenty of kickers who have focused on field goals more, and kicked off less, as they got along in their careers. For Vinatieri, who hasn't kicked off since 2008, that change seems to have extended his career, and as Gostkowski noted, may have taken him out of situations where he'd be more likely to get injured.

The question is whether the Patriots see any value in giving Gostkowski a break from his kickoff duties this year after trading up in the fifth round to select a punter who could, in theory, provide him one.

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Gunner Olszewski earning trust of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick with hard work

Gunner Olszewski earning trust of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick with hard work

The New England Patriots have had an unsettled receiver room for most of the 2019 season. At one time, it seemed like they had one of the best groups in the league. But the release of Antonio Brown and the team's decision to trade Demaryius Thomas left them a bit weaker at the position. And in recent weeks, they have been thin at the position due to injuries.

Phillip Dorsett (hamstring), Josh Gordon (knee/ankle), and Julian Edelman (chest) have all been dealing with various maladies over the course of the first six weeks of the season. Additionally, first-round rookie N'Keal Harry has been on IR since just after the team's final cuts.

With these absences, some unexpected contributors have been able to step up. And one of them is Gunner Olszewski. The undrafted rookie out of Bemidji State has earned a big role as a return man and has recently seen an increase in offensive action. And so far, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has been impressed with his energy and effort.

"Gunner works really hard," Belichick told reporters at Saturday's media availability. "He gives a lot of effort to do, again, whatever we ask him to do. Whether that’s return kicks, cover kicks, block, catch – he works really hard. Just gives his best all of the time, so you can’t ask for anything more than that. He keeps getting better, so we’ll see where it goes. But, yeah, he’s a good, hard worker."

Of course, hard work is only part of the equation. In the Patriots' offense, it's important to have chemistry with Tom Brady. Has Olszewski done enough to earn Brady's trust so far?

"Yeah, definitely," Brady said when asked about his level of trust in Olszewski. "I think they’re – like I said, those guys are – when you’re young, you gain trust in practice, and a lot of it’s doing the right thing over and over and over again. Those guys are working at it. I mean, they’ve been here a short period of time, so try to get as many reps as you can and talk about things. You get coached up, and any young player, they’re trying to earn the trust of the coach and the players every day."

This is seemingly the most positive Brady has felt about his young receiving weapons this year. Perhaps the team's success against the New York Giants despite being limited to only one formation because of their lack of healthy personnel had an impact on Brady. And maybe that helped him to become more confidence in Olszewski and fellow undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers.

Either way, Brady will likely have to look Olszewski's way a bit more than usual on Monday night against the New York Jets. Josh Gordon is out for the game and so too are tight ends Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo. That should afford Olszewski a good opportunity to make his presence felt.

Tom E. Curran's Patriots-Jets Week 7 Preview>>>

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Tom E. Curran's Patriots-Jets Preview: Pats facing MNF challenge

Tom E. Curran's Patriots-Jets Preview: Pats facing MNF challenge

The Patriots have had one game in which there was even a shred of doubt about the outcome into the fourth quarter. And even then, did anyone figure the Bills were going to score? Exactly.

But Monday night at MetLife the Patriots could get their second decent challenge of the season.

Despite their 1-4 record, the Jets just got capable quarterback Sam Darnold back and his presence made a huge difference in the team’s win over Dallas last week. As for the Patriots offense, which isn’t working at optimal potency, the Jets did a nice job against the Patriots in the first meeting between the teams after New England walked through them on their first three drives.

With 11 days to prepare for this, Josh McDaniels is sure to have hatched something to get Gregg Williams’ defense off-balance. But the Patriots are still hamstrung on offense by their personnel so this one could turn into a slugfest.

Click here for Tom E. Curran's full Week 7 Patriots preview>>>