After spending most of two drafts rebuilding the offense and the first two picks in 2016 on key defensive additions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers found a new and surprising way to utilize a key Day Two selection. Tampa Bay's third pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, taken at #59 overall, was deadly accurate Florida State kicker Robert Aguayo.
New Special Teams Coordinator Nate Kaczor got the kicking-game prize of the 2016 field after the Buccaneers traded up from the top of the third round to the bottom of the second to land the most coveted kicking prospect in years. Tampa Bay surrendered the extra fourth-round pick it had gained from Chicago on Thursday night when trading down two spots in the first round. Considering that the Bucs still got the player at #11, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, that they would have taken at #9 before that initial trade, the net outcome was three rounds of picks spent on three pressing needs.
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"We had [Aguayo] targeted all along and if you really think about what happened, is we really just picked the kicker in the third round," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "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."
Aguayo went higher in the draft than any kicker since the New York Jets took Mike Nugent with the 47th overall pick in 2005. He followed in the footsteps of another former FSU player, Sebastian Janikowski, as the last two kickers to declare early for the NFL Draft; Janikowski was taken in the first round by Oakland in 2000. Aguayo is also the highest-drafted kicker in Buccaneer history, going earlier than Martin Gramatica's third-round, #80-overall slot in 1999. Gramatica proved worthy of the pick, turning into the Buccaneers' all-time leading scorer and helping the team to four playoff appearances, including the 2002 run to the Super Bowl title.
Despite that good experience with Gramatica, the pick of Aguayo certainly surprised many observers, but the potential reaction didn't factor into the decision made in the Bucs' draft room.
"Everybody's going to have their own opinion of that," said Koetter. "I just think that's a unique situation because, to quote [a questioner], 'The best kicker in college football history' doesn't come around very often. So it's a unique situation, to say the least, and this is a situation that we know is going to be criticized on some fronts, but it's going to play itself out over time. It's no different, really, than picking [quarterback] Jameis [Winston] first last year. I mean, we were going to sink or swim with that guy and we chose to swim."
And there is no questioning Aguayo's credentials as one of the best kicking prospects to enter the NFL draft in years. He never missed an extra point or a field goal within 40 yards during his three years in Tallahassee, making a combined 267 of 276 kicks in that span. That combined 96.73% success rate on all kicks broke the all-time collegiate record of 96.67% set by Nebraska's Alex Henery. Aguayo's accuracy from inside the 40 is actually now relevant to extra points as well, since the NFL adopted a new line of scrimmage for that play, turning it into what is essentially a 33-yard field goal. NFL kickers combined to miss 71 extra points last year after the new rule was put in place.
That new PAT line of scrimmage, along with an overall rising of field goal success rate across the NFL, may be adding value back to a kicker position that had previously been moving in the other direction. There were seven kickers taken in the first three rounds from 1992-2000, culminating in the Janikowski pick, but there were just two more from 2001-15.
As much as the Buccaneers hit significant needs with their first two picks of cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and defensive end Noah Spence, the Aguayo pick also addressed an issue of concern. In 2015, Tampa Bay ranked 30th in the NFL with a field goal success rate of 72.5%. The Bucs also missed three of their 31 extra point attempts. Veteran Connor Barth took over for a struggling Kyle Brindza early in the season, which improved the kicking situation, and Barth is the most accurate field-goal kicker in franchise history. However, Aguayo was just too much of a potential upgrade at an important position for the Buccaneers to pass on.
"The importance of special teams is paramount," said General Manager Jason Licht, who engineered the various trades that led to the Bucs' two-day haul. "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 the difference in several games."
The Buccaneers also believe that Aguayo can make a difference in the ever-changing landscape of the kickoff. The FSU standout is capable of blasting touchbacks but also might come in handy if the Bucs try a different tactic to counteract the new post-touchback placement of the football at the 25-yard line. Indeed, there are a myriad of ways in which Aguayo could affect the Bucs' game-day decision-making if he proves to be as good as he was at Florida State.
"This guy can kick it out of the end zone pretty much when he wants to," said Koetter. "Florida State last year did a lot of mortar kicks where they tried to pin teams inside the 20 and he was excellent at that. I don't think that rule's going to change. I don't think the PAT rule is going back to the 2-yard line in the NFL. I think that's going to stay as it is. Look at this guy's numbers, PAT-field goals, he's never missed a kick inside of 40 yards and then he's got range up to 60 yards.
"We always like to say when we get to a certain yard line we've got three in the bank, and then it just depends on what we're going to do from there."