Pats grab kicker to compete for Vinatieri’s old job

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – There’s a huge difference between kicking a dynasty-starting field goal in a snowstorm in Foxborough and chipping a game-winning field goal at a school in Greenville, N.C.

Adam Vinatieri did the first, part of his legacy of pressure kicking with the New England Patriots that he took with him when he signed with Indianapolis on March 21.

Stephen Gostkowski did the second for Memphis against East Carolina and now gets a chance to follow one of the friendly faces of a franchise, a humble star who made clutch kicks seem routine.

“I expect to have that same kind of pressure on me, but I’m not looking to impress anybody, to fill anybody’s shoes,” Gostkowski said. “Not everybody gets a chance to kick two game-winning Super Bowl kicks. I’m just trying to come in here and fight for a job.”

The Patriots chose Gostkowski on Sunday with the 21st pick in the fourth round of the NFL draft, 12 spots after they took Garrett Mills of Tulsa in the same round. Mills was the NCAA’s leading receiver among tight ends with 87 catches last season but is expected to play fullback in the pros.

In the fifth round, the Patriots took guard Ryan O’Callaghan of California. They picked their first defensive player, end Jeremy Mincey of Florida State, in the sixth round and added guard Dan Stevenson of Notre Dame and defensive tackle Le Kevin Smith of Nebraska later in that round.

Their final pick was safety Willie Andrews of Baylor in the seventh round.

After Vinatieri left, the Patriots signed former Tampa Bay kicker Martin Gramatica, who will compete for the job. Gostkowski is only the second kicker drafted by the Patriots in 13 years and the highest they picked one in 18.

They haven’t needed one for a long time.

Vinatieri signed as a free agent in 1996. On Jan. 19, 2002, he forced overtime with a 45-yard field goal with 32 seconds left in the fourth quarter on a snow-covered field in the last game at the old Foxborough Stadium. His 23-yarder in overtime of that AFC divisional game beat Oakland 16-13.

That season ended with his 48-yarder on the final play of the Super Bowl that gave New England a 20-17 win over St. Louis. Two years later, Vinatieri’s 41-yard kick with four seconds left gave the Patriots a 32-29 Super Bowl win over Carolina, the second of their three titles in four years before they fell short last season.

“I’ve never kicked in snow,” Gostkowski said, “but I’m looking forward to it.”

The last time Gostkowski kicked a winning field goal was on Nov. 20, 2004 when his 35-yarder with six seconds left gave Memphis a 38-35 win at East Carolina.

“Every kick is a pressure situation,” he said. “If you can’t handle pressure, you shouldn’t be in the business. You want to be able to kick that game-winning kick, because that’s where people fall in love with you; kicking the ones that count. Everybody can make a million field goals and then miss the big one and that’s all (people) think about.”

Gostkowski hasn’t missed many.

He went 22-for-25 last season and was 10-for-10 on kicks of at least 40 yards, including three of 50 or more. He finished his college career with 13 straight successful field goals. And he missed just one of 128 extra-point attempts in his last three seasons.

Gostkowski also played baseball in college but leaned toward football when his kicking consistency improved in his junior year.

“I’ve just been working really hard at kicking and defining myself as a kicker, and it’s paid off so far,” he said.

He was “ecstatic” when the Patriots called and was busy doing his laundry since he didn’t expect to get drafted so early. Now he’s going to a team and fans who revered Vinatieri.

“It’s exciting that a team can have so much respect for a kicker because kickers sometimes reach out for respect, and they don’t get as much from other teams,” Gostkowski said.

The 6-foot-1 Mills, who weighs 230 pounds, is considered too small to play tight end in the pros. At Tulsa, he had 201 catches for 23 touchdowns in four seasons. Last year, his 1,235 yards set an NCAA record for yards receiving by a tight end.

“If coach (Bill) Belichick asks me to do a little tight end, I will do that. If it is fullback, I will do that. If it is a little bit of both, even better,” Mills said. “Coming out of high school, I was told I was undersized to play tight end at a Division I college. Hopefully, I proved those guys wrong. Hopefully, I will do the same at the next level.”

If he makes a successful switch to fullback, he could be part of New England’s backfield of the future with Laurence Maroney, the Minnesota running back taken with the 21st pick in the first round Saturday.

Corey Dillon will be 32 in October and is coming back from a subpar, injury-plagued season after rushing for a season high 1,635 yards in 2004. Kevin Faulk and Patrick Pass are veteran running backs.

Belichick said he spoke with Dillon on Saturday.

“I explained to him what the situation was,” Belichick said. “He’s been a very productive player for us and we expect Corey to have major contributions for us this year as we do Kevin and Patrick.”

AP-ES-04-30-06 1844EDT

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