Adam Vinatieri

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. 

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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.

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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

Adam Vinatieri can't retire, because he's all that many of us have left

Adam Vinatieri can't retire, because he's all that many of us have left

Athletes enter our lives as mythical heroes, and those formative connections endure. Many New Englanders under 30, for instance, still feel like awestruck children at the sight of Tom Brady's No. 12. For 40-somethings, there's a reason Larry Bird videos provide comfort with one housebound day bleeding into the next.

As we age, athletes become our contemporaries. The first time one of them hits it big, we experience emotions ranging from, "I'm not a kid anymore," to, "I should probably start doing something with my life."

If you were born in the 1960s, maybe it's Wayne Gretzky. For children of the '70s, it's Ken Griffey Jr. Eighties kids probably expect to watch LeBron James forever. Today's generation loves Jayson Tatum. Their respective careers start with such promise that we can't imagine them getting old, because such a fate will never befall us, either.

Then we push into our 30s and something unsettling happens: the next generation arrives.

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The idols of our youth retire and the replacements who once represented the future now look like us -- a little older, a little slower. With each successive season, more of them fall by the wayside, their departures another way to mark the passage of time.

Instead of reveling in eternal youth, they burn like Roman candles, sparking into bursts of color that sputter to silence. One minute Griffey is going back-to-back with his dad, his backwards cap an iconic symbol of rebellion against a sport's staid culture, the next he's a broken 40-year-old hitting .184 in his farewell season. The man we once called The Kid just turned 50, by the way.

The shocking moment for every sports fan is when there's suddenly no one left. If you were born in 1962, you held on until Jamie Moyer retired in 2012. A year later, children of 1969 winced upon Mariano Rivera calling it quits. Boston fans of a 1977 vintage were blessed to call both Brady and Zdeno Chara their own until last month, and one of the minor tragedies of a 2020 without sports, if it comes to that, is the possibility that we've seen the last of TB12 and Big Z.

Our relationship to sports changes when we're older than the competitors.

I'm willing to bet most fans can name at least one athlete who shares their birth year, if not the exact day (Saints guard Tom Ackerman, baby!), but the personal connection dissolves when you look out on the field/court/ice and realize the hypothetical commonality of potentially shared experience -- "Two years ago we were probably both playing NBA 2K in our dorms!" -- no longer applies.

If this sounds like the lament of a sportswriter locked in his house and confronting his own transition from young to (transmission garbled), there's a point to these maudlin ruminations, I swear.

Last week, Colts head coach Frank Reich provided an update on the status of Adam Vinatieri. The 47-year-old future Hall of Famer is coming off a miserable season mercifully cut short by knee surgery, and he still hasn't decided whether he'll play in 2020.

Vinatieri was born in 1972, the same year that gave us Shaquille O'Neal, Chipper Jones, and Jaromir Jagr, to name three.

Among the many millions of non-famous people born that year is me. The best players of my generation aren't just retired; a handful have already reached their respective Halls of Fame, their careers reduced to highlight clips and so many bolded sports-reference pages. But whether journeymen or All-Stars, their playing days are over. Jason Varitek may as well be Birdie Tebbetts; Drew Bledsoe feels interchangeable with Jim Plunkett. They're all consigned to history.

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But not Vinatieri. For those who grew up playing RBI Baseball, ordering double-double-cheese-cheese-burgers-burgers-please, and running the Cosby Show/Family Ties/Cheers/Night Court gauntlet every Thursday on NBC, Vinatieri is all we've got left. He's the last tenuous link to a version of ourselves that didn't worry about mortgages, raising children, or surviving pandemics. We played pickup basketball without bothering to stretch, drank like ornate fountains, and slept until noon.

Vinatieri debuted in 1996, a little over a year after I graduated college, when people still got most of their news from the paper and the Celtics still played on SportsChannel. He played his first game on Sept. 1 in a loss to the Dolphins. Thirteen days later, I covered my first Red Sox game, a 13-5 loss vs. the White Sox. Harold Baines went 2 for 4, and now he's 61. Chicago's lineup alone featured three future managers: Robin Ventura, Ozzie Guillen, and defending World Series champ Dave Martinez. Warming in the Red Sox bullpen was a reliever named Pat Mahomes -- his much more famous son goes by Patrick and just won his first Super Bowl.

That was nearly 25 years ago, and yet Vinatieri endures. He has spent more seasons in Indianapolis (14) than New England (10), and until 2019, when he missed six extra points and converted a career-low 68 percent of his field goals, he remained a standout.

He made first-team All-Pro at age 42 and converted nearly 93 percent of his kicks at age 43. He remained over 85 percent as recently as 2018. He still managed to nail a 55-yarder last year. His success helped weekend warriors believe they could still run post patterns in the park, maybe without even shredding an Achilles.

But now Vinatieri must decide whether there's anything left in that leg. When he hangs up his cleats, he'll be taking a little piece of a whole bunch of old guys with him. And I believe I speak for us all when I say:

Please don't go. We're not ready.

Bill Belichick issues statement on Patriots releasing kicker Stephen Gostkowski

Bill Belichick issues statement on Patriots releasing kicker Stephen Gostkowski

The New England Patriots have another hole to fill after releasing longtime kicker Stephen Gostkowski on Monday.

His release was likely due to the hip injury and subsequent surgery he had last season, which limited him to only four games. With New England moving on from the 14-year veteran, Patriots coach Bill Belichick released the following statement on Tuesday on Gostkowski, who he had previously called "one of the best kickers in NFL history."

"I have had the privilege of coaching some of the best specialists in the NFL and Stephen Gostkowski is one of them," Belichick said. 

Gostkowski, 36, made the Pro Bowl four times and was among the league's best kickers until his injury.

He is the Patriots' all-time leading scorer, was on three Super Bowl title teams and was one of New England's longest-tenured players. A fourth-round draft pick from Memphis in 2006, Gostkowski replaced another standout kicker, Adam Vinatieri, who left the Patriots for the Indianapolis Colts as a free agent after the 2005 season. 

The Patriots used three other kickers last season after Gostkowski's injury, including Nick Folk, 35, who finished the season with New England and may return or perhaps the Pats would look to draft a kicker.