Tom Brady isn’t the only New England Patriots franchise pillar who needs replacing this offseason.
The Patriots also are moving on without longtime kicker Stephen Gostkowski, whom they officially released Monday. They’re now preparing to enter a season without Gostkowski for the first time since 2005 — and without either him or Adam Vinatieri for the first time since 1995.
How will New England replace the fifth-most-accurate kicker in NFL history? In terms of veteran options, there’s not much out there.
The Patriots could re-sign 35-year-old journeyman Nick Folk, who kicked well for them down the stretch last season, or bring in Greg Zuerlein, the former Los Angeles Rams All-Pro who’s coming off one of the worst seasons of his career (72.7 percent success rate on field goals). Vinatieri also is a free agent, but the 47-year-old was wildly inconsistent in 2019.
New England’s best course of action likely would be to select a kicker in the 2020 NFL Draft while also signing a veteran to provide competition/insurance in training camp.
Headlining this year’s draft class is Rodrigo Blankenship, the bespectacled Georgia product who won the 2019 Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top kicker. Blankenship boasts a big leg, going 6-for-9 from 50-plus-yards during his four years with the Bulldogs, including a 55-yarder in a Rose Bowl win over Baker Mayfield’s Oklahoma Sooners. He also went a perfect 200-for-200 on extra points.
Georgia has become a Patriots pipeline in recent years, producing draft picks Isaiah Wynn, Sony Michel and Malcolm Mitchell, and an undrafted gem in David Andrews.
Beyond Blankenship, the two other kickers to earn invites to this year’s NFL Scouting Combine were Georgia Southern’s Tyler Bass and UCLA’s J.J. Molson. Scouting reports question Bass’ range and ability to kick in the elements, which doesn’t exactly paint him as a prototypical Patriot. He also converted just 71.4 percent of his field-goal attempts last season (20-for-28). Molson was worse, hitting at 51.4 percent clip (8-for-14) last season and going just 1-for-6 from 50-plus in his college career.
Among kickers who were not invited to Indianapolis, potential targets include TCU’s Jonathan Song, UCF’s Dylan Barnas, Utah State’s Dominik Eberle, Miami (Ohio)’s Sam Sloman and Marshall’s Justin Rohrwasser, all of whom converted more than 85 percent of their field goals in 2019.
The Patriots tend to have a good eye for talent when it comes to drafting specialists. The last three they’ve selected all have been hits: punter Jake Bailey in 2018, long snapper Joe Cardona in 2015 and Gostkowski in 2006.