Robbie Gould has been the placekicker for the Chicago Bears since 2005. He has started 166 games across 11 seasons, making the Pro Bowl once. He just came off his fifth-worst year in terms of field goal percentage, and there has been debate both at Windy City Gridiron and elsewhere about his future with the Bears.
Before going much deeper, it's important to take a brief aside to talk about two things involving football that have been very well-documented elsewhere, including by people much better at explaining the numbers and models than I am.
First, placekickers in the NFL have gotten too good. Placekicking improves at such a consistent rate that knowing the era of a kicker is usually enough to determine his accuracy. As the fivethirtyeight article linked above points out, in the 1960s placekickers made 56% of all attempts, but since 2010 placekickers have made nearly 62% of all attempts of 50-plus yards. Placekickers have gotten so good that rules have been changed to make things harder for them, and they have gotten so good that conventional wisdom about when to go for it and when to take a chance at a field goal is outdated almost every few years.
Second, year-to-year field goal percentage fluctuates wildly, leading Football Outsiders to go so far as to declare season-to-season field goal percentage to be "almost entirely random." Some people don't like this conclusion, but FO points out that "measuring every kicker from 2000 to 2014 who had at least ten field goal attempts in each of two consecutive years, the year-to-year correlation coefficient for field-goal percentage was just 0.135." By comparison, the correlation coefficient for touchbacks is .814 (for those who don't like math, higher is better).
Why do I bring this up before diving into Robbie Gould? Because it tells us what matters. I am not going to go through his relative accuracy ranking from year to year, removing all dome kickers from the field, in order to create some sort of "Winterfell-approved" database of blizzard-worthy ball-strikers. If you didn't like Gould's accuracy last year, it will probably be different this season, so don't worry about it.
Did some of those missed field goals came at particularly unfortunate moments? Yes. However, Robbie Gould did not "lose" any one of those games any more than a missed tackle, an incomplete pass, or a holding penalty lost one of those games. Team sport. Gould had some bad games, but who on the Bears didn't in 2015?
The big deal with Gould is his touchback percentage, and as noted, that's been bad. In fact, it's bad enough that he likely costs the team points on a predictable basis. Feel free to race to the comments sections right now and tell me I'm wrong and that touchbacks don't matter, but they do. They really do. Allowing a return instead of a touchback might only contribute a couple of yards here or there, but each of those shorter fields gives another team's offense a slightly better chance of scoring (see the article linked above for an explanation).
However, two things have changed.
First, Robbie Gould himself has changed. Gould has talked openly about his efforts to come into the 2016 season heavier than before, and he is trying to add weight and power to his kicks. Obviously, Gould is a professional who is trying to find the best way to improve his performance, and adding some weight could certainly help him find some extra oomph.
Second, and more importantly, the rules have changed again. Nobody knows exactly how the new rule change moving touchbacks out to the 25 is going to impact strategy. Some say that kickers are going to keep blasting deep and others say kickers are going to start trying to place their kicks outside of the endzone, meaning that the NFL's new rule would actually increase the number of kickoff returns. However, regardless of how it impacts strategy, it absolutely impacts the value of a touchback.
In 2015, the average non-touchback was returned to around the 24. Last year, not making a touchback would (on average) spot the other team four extra yards of field position. Now, it would cost the other team a yard. Gould's biggest disadvantage, his lack of a booming leg for touchbacks, was just rule-changed out of existence for at least a year.
Expectations: Moderate. Gould is a consummate professional, and his biggest limitation might no longer be an issue. However, he's an older player at a position where constant improvement is the norm. There is every reason to think that Gould will be at least a break-even proposition for the Bears, and there are some promising signs to think he might improve.