Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; New England Patriots quarterbackTom Brady
hoists the Vince Lombardi Trophy after defeating the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The New England Patriots are the world champions once again. Yet another dramatic Super Bowl has ended with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady hoisting the Lombardi Trophy with almost an entirely different supporting cast from their last Super Bowl victory after the 2004 NFL season. The “Rolling Rally” is over, the players are off to start their limited post-season and get healthy for the 2015 season, and now attention shifts to free agency and the NFL Draft.
As much fun as it is to re-watch the Super Bowl over-and-over and listen to the post-game commentary, after the celebrations and parades, late-night talk shows, and purchasing the hats & t-shirts it is time to start thinking about 2015. With the sense of “Mission Accomplished” in Foxboro, MA for 2014, much as the Patriots coaches, front office and scouting staff are already rolling up their sleeves and getting to work so to must the rest of us.
Over the next few weeks the regional draft combines start and is capped off by the national NFL combine starting on February 17. The Patriots also have a deadline of March 2 as far as applying the franchise tag to players who cannot work out a long-term deal and the team wants to keep. Free agency begins on March 7 with teams able to negotiate with unrestricted free agents and on March 10 at 4PM the league year begins and players start moving.
With that, it seems the ideal time to take a look at the internal free agents and cap numbers of salaried veterans in New England where tough decisions need to be made as far as roster management. Kicking off the six-part series will be kicker Stephen Gostkowski:
OFFSEASON PRIORITY ONE OF SIX: Stephen Gostkowski
Dec 14, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots punterRyan Allen
(6) holds the ball for kicker Stephen Gostkowski (3) against the Miami Dolphins during the third quarter at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots won 41-13. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
The New England placekicker is an unrestricted free agent and just like a decade ago, there is a difficult decision for the Patriots. Head coach Bill Belichick inherited future Hall-of-Fame kicker Adam Vinatieri for his first seasons in New England and Vinatieri delivered game-winning kicks in big situations and championship games. After the Patriots failed to place the franchise tag on Vinatieri, he left via free agency to the Indianapolis Colts where he remains as one of the most consistent kickers in the game.
The Patriots replaced Vinatieri by investing a fourth round draft pick in Stephen Gostkowski. With a booming leg and almost a decade of kicking in the tricky winds of Gillette Stadium, Gostkowski has been a steady and accurate kicker. Gostkowski has made 86% of his field goals in his career and is 73 of 78 the past two seasons (all stats from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted). Steady, reliable, a weapon on kick-offs, he has been a valuable special teams weapon in New England.
Aug 22, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski (3) kicks for the extra point against the Carolina Panthers in the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Last year, Gostkowski had a $3.8 million cap hit (all salary data from OvertheCap.com) and would likely command more money on the open market as the 31-year old has showed no sign of slowing down. Do the Patriots risk losing their kicker again and have to go through the NFL Draft and use a draft pick, overpay for a veteran in free agency, or an undrafted and untested rookie free agent? What value does Gostkowski have and how much do the Patriots spend to keep him?
The Patriots were burned by Vinatieri in the past, and although Gostkowski has evolved to a comparable kicker, it took a few years. Quarterback Tom Brady has a small window for more Super Bowls, and being derailed by a weak kicking game could be a problem the Patriots do not want to take. This is a case where the franchise tag numbers for kickers come into play.
With Gostkowski near the top of the list for average annual salary for a kicker (OvertheCap.com had him fourth in the NFL in 2014), the franchise tag makes sense for him to at worst come back with a modest raise while working on a long term deal. Unlike other free agents, New England already is paying Gostkowski a premium from his prior deal and do not have to worry about a huge raise or one-year cap hit with the franchise tag. Jason LaCanfora at CBS Sports calculated the franchise tag projections earlier in the season and the expectation is the tag for a kicker is just over $4 million which is about where Gostkowski’s cap hit was in 2014.
The team is going to make a push to keep Gostkowski and will not hesitate to franchise tag him if they cannot work anything out. If Gostkowski is willing to work with the team to work out a deal and spread out his cap hit it could be a painless negotiation. Look for the Patriots to work out a fair deal with Gostkowski and keep him in New England for the next three or four years.