The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have had kicker battles in training camp before, but this one is a little bit different.
The more common competition at that position arises from a team bringing in a young kicker – via the draft or free agency – to challenge an incumbent veteran. In 1993, for instance, the Buccaneers signed undrafted rookie Michael Husted out of Virginia to kick alongside then-37-year-old Eddie Murray, who had replaced Ken Willis midway through the previous season. Husted won the job. Just two years ago the Bucs made a late-summer trade for Kyle Brindza to pit against Connor Barth and Patrick Murray, with Brindza getting the nod, albeit only briefly.
Photos of the Buccaneers' complete roster.
Other times, several newcomers fight it out over a wide-open spot on the depth chart. In 2005, after Martin Gramatica's long run as a Buc had come to an end during the previous campaign, the team first signed Todd France in January and sent him to NFL Europe, then added Matt Bryant in March. Bryant was a bit more established, with 31 NFL games under his belt, but had only brief stints with the Colts and Dolphins in 2004. He would win the job and go on to have a long and productive (and ongoing) career with the Bucs and Falcons. Bryant's time in Tampa would later come to an end through a competition between two veterans when the Bucs added Mike Nugent in 2009.
Again, kicker competitions in training camp are not unusual, for the Buccaneers or the NFL as a whole. Thirteen of the NFL's 32 teams are taking multiple kickers into camp this summer (Cincinnati has three!), including three of the four teams in the Bucs' division. But Tampa Bay's situation is a little different because it's the young kicker thought to be the long-term answer who is now facing a challenge.
The Buccaneers drafted Robert Aguayo late in the second round in 2016. The former Florida State star struggled as a rookie, however, and Tampa Bay finished with the worst field goal percentage in the league. Clearly a talented player, Aguayo may still be that long-term solution in Tampa, but first he must outkick 11th-year veteran Nick Folk, who was signed in March.
So, after three weeks of training camp and four preseason games, will it be Aguayo or Folk who is kicking field goals for the Buccaneers in the fall? That's the question of the day as we continue with our One Dozen Debates, looking at the issues that will define this training camp. From the uncertain depth chart at safety to the impact of Hard Knocks to the next step in the development of Jameis Winston, we'll look at one question a day, and that will take us right into the start of football on July 28.
We may not have all the answers just yet, but we'll try to define the issues. Read along with us and each day you can let us know where you stand on each debate.
- Monday, July 17: How will the depth chart at safety shake out?
- Tuesday, July 18: Can the Bucs improve in the red zone?
- Wednesday, July 19: Which Buc can break the 10-sack drought?
- Thursday, July 20: Who will emerge as the Buccaneers' kicker in 2017?
- Friday, July 21: Will the presence of the Hard Knocks crew affect the Bucs' preparations?
- Saturday, July 22: Is the new offensive line alignment going to work?
- Sunday, July 23: Is there enough depth at cornerback?
- Monday, July 24: How will Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard co-exist?
- Tuesday, July 25: Can the defense repeat its 2017 turnover magic?
- Wednesday, July 26: What will the running game look like during Doug Martin's absence?
- Thursday, July 27: What's the next step for Jameis Winston?
- Friday, July 28: Is Tampa Bay going back to the playoffs in 2017?
Debate #4: Who will emerge as the Buccaneers' kicker in 2017?
In one sense, the answer to this question is very simple: The job will go to whichever kicker is most accurate from July 28 (the first day of camp) through August 31 (the preseason finale). Buccaneer coaches have recorded every kick made by each of the two since the start of the offseason program, and those reps will be factored in, but the most important evidence is still to be logged.
That's because both General Manager Jason Licht and Head Coach Dirk Koetter have made it clear that this competition will truly be fought on a level playing field. The decision will not be based on how the player was acquired or what he did last year. Accuracy, consistency, dependability – that will win Aguayo or Folk a spot on the 53-man roster.
The Buccaneers hope that this will prove to be a very difficult decision in early September. That is, they would like to see the competition bring out the best in both players, leaving them with two strong options from which to choose. That looked possible during the Buccaneers' June mini-camp, when both Aguayo and Folk closed out the offseason on a very good run. Of course, that's a small sample size; we're about to get a much bigger one.
Other than their vocation of choice, the competitors are not very similar. Folk is a former sixth-round draft pick who had a very good rookie year for Dallas in 2007. He played three years in Dallas but ran into some struggles of his own in 2009 and was released. Folk caught on with the Jets the next year and locked down that job for seven seasons before his salary cap-related release in February. Overall, he has attempted 294 field goals in the NFL and made them at an 81.3% clip. He was good on 27 of 31 tries last year, good for an 87.1% success rate. In his career, Folk has produced touchbacks on 22.4% of his kickoffs, though those numbers have risen in recent years with the kickoff line of scrimmage moved up to the 35. His 56.5% rate last year was a career high.
Aguayo, obviously, has a far shorter NFL resume. As a rookie he made 22 of 31 field goals, succeeding 71.0% of the time. He improved after a rough start, making 16 of his last 20 attempts, including a run of 16 out of 18. His longest successful field goal was 43 yards, although he tried only one of 50 or more yards. On kickoffs, Aguayo produced touchbacks on 68.4% of his kickoffs, the seventh-best rate in the NFL.
The competition between Aguayo and Folk should definitely give the Buccaneers an idea about how well the two kickers handle pressure. There will be plenty of position battles worth watching in this year's camp, but none will have the same focused spotlight as this one. The average observer may not notice every time one of the Bucs' safeties reacts correctly to a play-action fake or one of the young wide receivers runs a perfect route. Each field goal try by Aguayo and Folk, on the other hand, will have a captive audience and the promise of real consequences.
Aguayo wouldn't be the first highly-drafted kicker to struggle as a rookie before settling into a fine NFL career. Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski, drafted in the first round in 2000, had a slightly worse rookie field-goal rate than Aguayo (22 of 32, 68.8%) but bumped that up to 82.1% the next year and now has a career mark of 80.4% over 17 seasons and 515 attempts. Nugent, a second-round pick in 2005, made 78.6% of his tries as a rookie but improved to 88.9% the following year and is still in the league. Third-round choice Jason Elam was a 74.3% kicker as a rookie but 81.1% the next season as part of a 17-year career.
Aguayo still has a shot to follow a similar path. First things first, a training camp competition with Folk, who will get an equal shot to continue his impressive career. It might be the most intense battle of training camp.