Did Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht actually spend a prized second-round pick on drafting a kicker? For real?
Heck, yes, he did!
It was a bold move from a bold general manager. What did you expect?
Actually, you have to learn to expect the unexpected from Licht sometimes. Remember, one of his best friends is Arizona head coach Bruce Arians – the guy famous for the saying “no risk-it, no biscuit.”
There is a risk in drafting a kicker – even one as great as Florida State’s Robert Aguayo – in the second round. But is there any more risk in drafting him than a player at another position? Not really.
More so than any position on the football field, kicking field goals and extra points is pass-fail. A kicker either makes the kick or he doesn’t. A team either gets the points, or it doesn’t.
The idea of actually drafting a kicker rather than another positional player, such as Ohio State safety Vonn Bell for example, is sticking in the craw of some Buccaneers fans right now. I can assure you that Licht, Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter and the team’s scouting department realizes that there are another dozen or safeties that will be drafted on Day 3. They’ll find one.
In Licht I Trust.
However, there is only one kicker worth selecting in this year’s draft, and he happens to be the most accurate field goal kicker of all time in college football.
“Taking Roberto – the importance of special teams is paramount,” Licht said. “When you get a chance to get the best kicker in the history of college football, I didn’t want to risk it. I wanted to take him. I have a lot of confidence in him; I like the way he’s wired. I like the body of work that he’s put out there, obviously. A great kicker can be the difference in several games. I’ve been around some great ones: Adam Vinatieri, [Stephen] Gostkowski. Those guys are invaluable. We obviously took him, we used a pick to go up and get him. So we feel very confident about it. We needed to be bold there and we were.”
You see, the risk in Licht wanting to draft a kicker is actually not getting him and letting one of the other 31 teams select him instead.
That’s a risk Licht didn’t want to take for much longer, which is why he packaged the fourth-round pick that Licht acquired by trading down two spots with Chicago to get Hargreaves and Tampa Bay’s third to move up to get Aguayo.
“Well, we had him targeted all along and if you really think about what happened, is we really just picked the kicker in the third round,” Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said. “The extra pick we got in the fourth, we gave it back up, used that same third round pick we were going to use in the first place to take the kicker. That’s exactly what happened, so if we would’ve just taken him in the third round the first time and there would’ve been no trades yesterday or today then we wouldn’t even be talking about the rest of that.”
That extra fourth-round pick was “house” money anyways for the Bucs. The moment Licht acquired it, I figured he would used that as a chit to maneuver in the second or third round to get a player he was targeting.
I remember when eyebrows were raised when the Bucs used a third-round pick on Kansas State kicker Martin Gramatica in 1999. Gramatica when to my alma mater and I watched “Automatica” for years. Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay, director of player personnel Jerry Angelo, director of college scouting Tim Ruskell and head coach Tony Dungy had the wisdom to draft a Lou Groza Award winner and one of the best kickers to come out of college football.
Gramatica won the Lou Groza at Kansas State and his 65-yarder against Northern Illinois set the record for the longest field goal in NCAA history without a kicking tee. Gramatica went on to make 84.4 percent of his field goals as a rookie in 1999 and made the Pro Bowl after scoring 126 points and connecting on 82.4 percent of his kicks in 2000.
After a dip in production in 2001 due to an injury, Gramatica came back strong in 2002 with a career-best 128 points and an 82.1 percent field goal percentage in helping to lead Tampa Bay to Super Bowl XXXVII and the franchise’s first and only championship before injuries derailed his NFL career.
Gramatica entered the NFL after making 77.1 percent (54-of-70) of his field goals at K-State, in addition to 97.4 percent (187-of-192) of his extra points.
Those numbers pale in comparison to Aguayo’s.
The Florida State kicker is the most accurate kicker in NCAA history, connecting on 267-of-276 field goals for a 96.7 percent field goal percentage. He set an ACC record for consecutive extra points with 198, and he’s never missed a PAT, becoming the 12th kicker in NCAA history to do so.
I was at the PewterReport.com Day 2 Draft Party at the Hard Rock Cafe on Friday night and was talking to former Tampa Bay defensive back and Super Bowl XXXVII hero Dwight Smith after the Bucs picked Aguayo. He applauded the move and pointed out that during Tampa Bay’s march to the Super Bowl that the offense failed to score touchdowns in two games that year – a 12-9 win at Carolina and at 15-0 win against Chicago in Champaign, Ill. to end the season.
Gramatica was a perfect 9-9 on his field goals in those two games. He also drilled a game-winning 38-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter to lift the Bucs to a 23-20 victory at Detroit in Week 15 that year.
The difference between finishing with a 12-4 record, as Tampa Bay did in 2002, and finishing 10-6 was that the 12-4 Bucs hosted the 10-6 San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs. Had the Bucs finished 10-6 instead, they would have been on the road in the first round of the playoffs, making the road to Super Bowl XXXVII much more perilous and perhaps improbable.
After the Bucs’ kicking debacle early last year with Kyle Brindza going 6-of-12 on field goals and 6-of-8 on extra points and basically costing Tampa Bay a chance to win at Houston in Week 3, Licht and Koetter had seen enough. They needed a reliable kicker.
Licht wants a Vinatieri or Gostkowski in Tampa Bay. Those kickers played a big role in combining for four Super Bowl victories in New England. In fact, one could argue that Vinatieri was just as important as Tom Brady in New England.
Vinatieri, a three-time Pro Bowler with an 84.1 percent career percentage, nailed a 48-yard field goal as time expired to help New England beat St. Louis, 20-17, in Super Bowl XXXVI. Then Vinatieri connected on a 41-yard field goal in New England’s 32-29 victory over Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII with four seconds left.
Vinatieri’s 22-yard field goal in the fourth quarter gave New England a 24-14 lead and let the Patriots withstand a late touchdown by Philadelphia in a 24-21 victory over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. Licht was on the losing end of that one as he was in the Eagles front office at the time.
Without Vinatieri in New England, Tom Brady isn’t Tom Brady.
He’s Jim Kelly.
Gostkowski, a four-time Pro Bowler who has made 87.3 percent of his field goals, was a fourth-round pick by the Patriots in 2006, helped New England win its fourth world title, a 28-24 victory over Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX. Gostkowski didn’t kick a field goal in the game, but he was perfect on all four extra points that played a role in the Patriots’ four-point victory.
By the way, Gostkowksi, who is New England’s all-time leading scorer, set the record for most consecutive extra points made, 523 (2006-16), before his miss in the 2015 NFL playoffs. With the NFL pushing the extra point back last year, having an accurate kicker like Aguayo is more important than ever as PATs are no longer automatic.
Connor Barth made 23-of-28 (82.1 percent) of his field goals last year for Tampa Bay and was 25-of-26 (96.1 percent) on extra points, but he’s 30 years old and has had some injuries in his career. He may remain on the Bucs roster as training camp competition and injury insurance, but Tampa Bay may part ways with Pat Murray, who is still rehabbing from a knee injury that cost him the 2015 season.
Licht’s record as a general manager is 8-24, which is the same record that cost former Bucs head coach Lovie Smith his job in Tampa Bay. While it takes touchdowns – not field goals – to truly win games in the NFL, it’s still a field goal league when it comes to the final score of a lot of games, especially in the postseason.
The Bucs are 2-4 in games decided by three points or less over Licht’s tenure in Tampa Bay and he wants that to change. He knows the value of having a great kicker, and everything points to Aguayo being just that.
A kicker is the team’s highest scoring player each year. You certainly can’t say that about a defensive tackle or a safety, and finding those types of players is much easier than finding a reliable kicker. They don’t grow on trees and the talent pool is so much smaller at kicker than at most positions.
And when Aguayo misses a field goal or an extra point in Tampa Bay – and he will at some point – Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston, Aguayo’s former teammate at Florida State, will have his back and boost his confidence. There isn’t a better ally in your corner than Winston, his ever-present smile and his positivity.
Keep in mind that Licht drafted a starter with his third pick in this draft.
Vernon Hargreaves III, the Bucs’ first-round selection, has the talent and skill set to develop into a starter at some point of his career, perhaps as a nickel cornerback during his rookie campaign. Noah Spence, the first of Tampa Bay’s two second-round picks, will eventually start become a starter after starting off as a situational pass rusher.
Aguayo makes three starters. Now Licht needs to find another one in rounds 4-7 to match last year’s haul with four starters from the same draft class.
Licht took a gamble on Aguayo and I applaud the pick, just as I did in 1999 when this franchise gambled on Gramatica. You typically don’t win Super Bowls without very good kickers, and that’s Licht’s ultimate goal – building a Super Bowl-winning team.
It would have been much easier for Licht to draft another defensive back or a defensive lineman in the third round. But the easiest way isn’t always the right way.
Cornerbacks like Hargreaves can cover wide receivers and impede the opportunity to catch a pass. Interceptions are great. Pass breakups are good. Giving up touchdowns is bad.
Defensive ends like Spence, can apply pressure on quarterbacks with their pass rush. Sacks are good. A sack-fumble is excellent. A sack-fumble that leads to a scoop-and-score is supreme. Getting blocked and allowing the quarterback ample time to throw a touchdown pass from a clean pocket is bad.
There are varying degrees of success at other positions. For guy like Aguayo, it’s make it or miss it. That’s life in the NFL for kickers.
Licht’s gamble on Aguayo will either be make it or miss it, too.
No risk-it, no biscuit. Drafting a starter kicker such as Aguayo feels like a great risk for Licht and the Bucs to take.