FOXBOROUGH -- There are positions in this training camp where the Patriots have competition, uncertainty and intrigue. Kicker is not one of them.
Outside of starting quarterback there might not be another spot on the Patriots' roster more solidified than kicker. Stephen Gostkowski has a leg up on the competition because, well, there is no competition. There isn't a need for it. That's a testament to the reliability, consistency and mental toughness of Gostkowski, who has emerged as one of the NFL's best.
His .851 field goal accuracy percentage is the highest in team history. From his rookie season of 2006 until now, Gostkowski's lithe leg has accounted for 513 points. Only San Diego's Nate Kaeding has accounted for more kicking points during that span. Gostkowski owns the longest kicks in Gillette Stadium (53 yards) and Patriots' playoff history (50). Perhaps his greatest accomplishment is that you rarely hear the name of his esteemed placekicking predecessor, Adam Vinatieri, mentioned in these parts.
Don't tell any of this to Gostkowski. Placekickers are the proletariat of the NFL. Their positions on the team are always precarious because they're eminently replaceable. It's normal to be a little uptight about putting the ball through the uprights. Insecurity is normal in a vocation with fleeting job security.
That's why now five seasons into his NFL career, having successfully succeeded a legend and with a Pro Bowl berth on his resume, Gostkowski still won't accept the notion that he has a foothold in Foxborough.
"There is a fine line between feeling established and being too comfortable," said the 26-year-old Gostkowski. "Just because you've done it before you can't come out here and go through the motions and start squirting the ball around everywhere and expect them to want to keep you.
"I still have to prove myself every year. It makes the transition going into the season a lot easier knowing that you've done it before. You have to go back on your past experience of success, especially when things aren't going right, to pick yourself back up. But you still have to prove yourself every year. If I come out here and can't make a kick they're going to have to find somebody that can, so it's my job to prove it to them that I can do it every year."
It doesn't seem that long ago that Gostkowski was a rookie fourth-round pick out of Memphis charged with the unenviable task of replacing Vinatieri, he of the Automatic Adam appellation and two field goals that put Super Bowl banners up in Gillette Stadium.
If he were less mentally tough, Gostkowski easily could have become the second-coming of Scott "Missin'" Sisson. Instead, he has become a lot like his football-booting forerunner -- a quiet, reliable, professional presence.
"It's not like I came in here and stole the job from Adam," said Gostkowski. "They decided to part ways with each other. They never put any pressure on me. I couldn't go out there my first game of the season and kick a game-winning Super Bowl kick. It just wasn't possible.
"Guys like [Adam] are what give kickers a good name these days. It was almost a bonus to be able to have a little success and to have people stop asking the questions. Maybe that drove me a little bit, but I didn't go out there and think that I had to prove anything. By going out there and doing good and making the team I felt like I'd proved something. I never really thought about it."
The truth is Gostkowski tries not to think about much. If your mind wanders so will your kicks. By the nature of their job kickers get isolated a bit from the rest of the team. They're alone with their thoughts a lot. Their own worst enemy at times can be themselves. A mental block is just as bad as a blocked kick. Gostkowski said in high school he'd be distraught if he missed a kick, now he's Even Stephen.
"We're to ourselves," said Gostkowski. "Only, me and Jake and Zoltan can understand what each other goes through. Jerod Mayo is not going to care if my leg is sore. He's not going to care that I don't feel that good today, so only we know what we go through mentally because we all sort of do the same thing.
"When you get out there you get one shot to perform, and it's real heartbreaking, it hurts when you don't do your job right. You feel like everybody is looking at you, and every time that you have a good experience or a bad experience it builds you up mentally. It toughens you up mentally, and you just got to be able to learn from it."
Sometimes it's heartbreaking when you don't get to attempt a kick, which was the case in Super Bowl XLII, when coach Bill Belichick eschewed a 49-yard Gostkowski field goal attempt to go for it on fourth and 13.
What has helped Gostkowski put kicking into perspective is that he became a father last December. He and his wife, Hallie, had a son, Slayden. Young Slayden doesn't care whether Gostkowski makes a 49-yard game-winner or misses a chip shot. He is there to greet Gostkowski with a grin and a gurgle.
"No, he's not worried if Daddy misses or not," Gostkowski said.
Gostkowski will never have that luxury, but he has learned to let go a bit. Hopefully the Patriots won't let go of him. Gostkowski is playing this season under the $1.759 million restricted free agent tender he signed after the team tendered him at the second-round level.
Gostkowski didn't want to talk contract, but he did indicate he likes it in New England. The feeling should be mutual.
They just wouldn't be the Patriots without a clutch kicker with a long surname and a long leg.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.