Nick Folk’s New England Patriots reunion was the culmination of a months-long process.
Folk, the 35-year-old journeyman who helped stabilize the Patriots’ precarious kicking situation last season, first engaged in contract talks with the team in March, around the time he became an unrestricted free agent. But with the COVID-19 pandemic intensifying, he initially opted not to re-sign.
“Back in March was the beginning of kind of the corona pandemic, and we kind of didn’t know what was going on,” Folk said Thursday. “My wife and I, we have four young kids at home. So we were a little more worried on that front. And then we went to homeschooling. And so we kind of just put (talks with the Patriots) on hold and just kept in contact.”
While Folk remained at home in Dallas, the Patriots released Stephen Gostkowski and used a fifth-round pick on Marshall’s Justin Rohrwasser, making him the first kicker selected in the 2020 NFL Draft. It was an unexpected choice — Rohrwasser was not considered one of the top kicker prospects during the pre-draft process — and has looked like a questionable one thus far.
Rohrwasser attempted an unusually low number of field goals during the first week of Patriots training camp as he reportedly dealt with an undisclosed injury, and his few kicking opportunities to date have not inspired confidence.
With the rookie struggling, the Patriots and Folk finally reached an agreement last weekend. The veteran made his official return to practice Monday, initiating New England’s first training camp kicker competition since 2006.
“We’ve talked to Nick throughout the course of the spring and even training camp, and things worked out here last week,” Belichick said earlier this week. “It’s great to have him. He certainly came in and did a good job for us last year. But things just didn’t work out until recently with Nick. I’m glad they did. I’m glad he’s here, and we’ll see how it turns out. I don’t know.
“But we’ve been talking to Nick since back in March, so this isn’t something that just came up a couple days ago. It’s been an ongoing conversation for several months, actually.”
Folk went 14-for-17 on field-goal attempts for the Patriots last season after replacing the ineffective Mike Nugent, who had taken over for an injured Gostkowski. One of Folk’s misses came on a blocked kick, and his two others were from 40-plus yards out during a driving rainstorm. He also made both of his field-goal tries during New England’s playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Folk said he continued to train during the offseason and always expected to play this season.
“It kind of made sense to come back this week,” he said.
Since returning, Folk has looked like the more competent kicker in training camp and should be viewed as the favorite for that job as the Sept. 5 roster cutdown deadline approaches.
“Competition, I think, brings out the best in everyone any time of the year,” Folk said. “Whether that’s in camp, when you come out for a workout, when you just go kind of train with other kickers, punters, stuff like that, I just think it brings out the best all the time. (Rohrwasser is) doing pretty well, so I’m just gonna keep my head down, worry about my part and kind of let it all take care of itself.”
With the preseason canceled due to COVID-19, neither Folk nor Rohrwasser will have the opportunity to kick in a game before the regular season begins.
The Patriots plan to use Friday’s practice, which will be held inside Gillette Stadium rather than on the adjoining practice fields, as a “game simulation.”
“Well, as you know, this is not an uncommon situation for rookies,” Belichick said of this important roster battle. “We can both remember countless examples of guys that come to training camp as rookies and have an injury and they’re not able to play in preseason or they’re only able to play in the last preseason game or something like that. In those situations, you have to make a decision, just like we will this year. We’ll have to make a decision.
“This year, some of the personnel rules are a little bit different, so we’ll take those into consideration. But ultimately, we’ll have to make decisions and do what we feel like is best for the football team. So that’s what we’ll do.”