The kicker competition between Nick Folk and Justin Rohrwasser appeared as lopsided as any New England Patriots roster battle in training camp.
Bill Belichick isn’t ready to declare a winner, though.
In fact, the Patriots head coach said Friday the gap between the veteran Folk and the rookie Rohrwasser is rather narrow.
“I think that is a pretty-close gap,” Belichick said.
The Patriots used a fifth-round pick on Rohrwasser this spring — making him the first kicker selected in the 2020 NFL Draft — but re-signed Folk after the Marshall product struggled mightily during the opening week of training camp.
Folk immediately looked like a competent NFL kicker, while Rohrwasser, who reportedly was not 100-percent healthy early in camp, continued to lack any semblance of consistency. Over the final two training-camp practices, Rohrwasser converted just 4 of 11 field-goal attempts, with several misses in simulated crunch-time situations.
Based on practices reporters were permitted to watch, the 35-year-old Folk, who also performed well for the Patriots last season, looked like the clear and obvious favorite.
Belichick, though, said Rohrwasser’s long-term potential also must be considered. He explained this during a long, in-depth response that included references to Tom Brady, James White and Shane Vereen — all of whom played sparingly as Patriots rookies — as well as Ted Marchibroda and the 1975 Baltimore Colts.
“It’s a similar decision I think that every team that I’ve ever been on has come up, where you have a veteran player with experience and a very accomplished career, with a younger player with potentially a long career ahead of him that has less experience,” Belichick said. “And they at this particular point in time you just have to see where you feel like the competition is, but then also look at it and say, ‘OK, where are things going to be halfway through the season, where are things going to be a year from now, or maybe two years from now?’
“And so, then that changes sometimes the evaluation. Now those are projections and there’s no certainty there. But when you look at players that we’ve had on our team — James White would be a good example of a player that didn’t play his rookie year. I think he was only active for a game or two. Obviously, Brady never played (much as a rookie).
“If you evaluate some players where they are at one point in time and then evaluate them a year later, sometimes you can have a drastic change. And in those two cases (White and Brady), I’m glad we didn’t make the decision based on where they were at the end of their rookie training camp to not have them on our team on a longer-term view.
“Now, not everybody falls into that category. But I’m saying, there’s two good examples. Shane Vereen would be another one — guys that didn’t have production at one point in time but then in a relatively short period of time that changed, maybe expectedly, maybe unexpectedly. Those are the kind of decisions that you make when you have a very experienced player versus a rookie.
“I think obviously, when the rookie at a particular position — I’m not saying this is the case with the kicker, I’m saying generically — if you have a rookie who’s already moved ahead of a player with a lot of experience and you have every reason to think that the rookie will continue to improve, then that’s a pretty straightforward decision. That’s pretty easy. But when it’s the other way around, when those two lines are going to cross at some point between the experienced guy coming closer to the end of his career and the inexperienced guy ascending to a higher level — when and how does that happen?
“Position’s a factor, again. This is not like (how) you can carry seven defensive linemen. This is a kicker. So that decision’s a little bit different than it is at other spots, where you can play more than one guy. But fundamentally, it’s still (the same). … I can remember those conversations going back to 1975, when I was with the Colts and Coach Marchibroda. It was the same thing then. It was, ‘This guy with experience versus this guy with inexperience.’ And I didn’t really understand it at that point. But at that point in time, the experienced guy in those conversations was always better, but then in the long run, that wasn’t always the case, as I cited with a couple of our examples.
“But it’s a really tough question, and it’s really challenging for every coach, every team. It’s not like college, where you’re going to have all the players all the time. Here you have to make choices. You can’t keep them all. And you’ve got to make a decision based on, you know … and either way, you could be right. When you make that decision either way, you could be right or you could be wrong depending on how fast or slow those tangents pass.
“It’s a great question, though. The hardest part of this time of year is those types of decisions.”
That reply suggests the Patriots would like to continue working with Rohrwasser. The 23-year-old simply did not look NFL-ready in camp, however, and unlike most positions, teams almost never carry more than one kicker on their 53-man roster.
The most likely landing spot for Rohrwasser is on New England’s practice squad — which was expanded from 10 to 16 players for this season — assuming no other team claims him off waivers.
The Patriots must finalize their initial 53-man roster by 4 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Thumbnail photo via New England Patriots