That’s great. Bold moves can lift a nice team into Super Bowl contention.
I see only one problem: Drafting Aguayo in the second round in 2016 wasn’t a bold move. It was a snub of what should be the clear lessons learned from nearly 50 years of NFL history. It was arrogance in the face of incontrovertible evidence that the best kickers generate only a handful of extra points for their teams relative to the league average.
As Aguayo tries to resurrect his career with the Chicago Bears, who claimed his rights this weekend, it’s worth emphasizing just how unnecessary this entire episode has been. Licht has built an intriguing team in Tampa, but he simply overvalued the kicker position in his zeal to polish the roster. Research from ESPN senior stats analyst Jacob Nitzberg helps demonstrate the historic randomness in the matriculation of kickers onto NFL rosters.
Since the 1970 merger, 121 place-kickers have averaged at least 20 field goal attempts per season, a decent benchmark to be established as a “starter” for at least a year. Of that total, 43 were drafted in the first seven rounds, the cutoff in the modern draft. The rest were acquired in spots that today would fall in undrafted territory.
So at the top, the Buccaneers acquired Aguayo in a way that falls into the minority of historical transactions. Further, of those 121, only eight were drafted in the first two rounds. When you consider that the Bucs traded up to draft Aguayo, giving up the No. 74 and No. 106 picks to take him at No. 59, it’s fair to consider him the equivalent of a low first- or high second-round pick based on the draft value chart at Football Perspective.
There is no real evidence, however, that a drafted kicker — no matter where he is selected — performs substantially better than one who goes undrafted. There are busts at every position, as well as elite players who signed as undrafted free agents, but at the kicking position, the randomness has been especially pronounced.
If you take all of those 197 place-kickers and rank them by career accuracy, you find that 13 of the top 15 went undrafted. The exceptions are Stephen Gostkowski, a fourth-round pick of the New England Patriots in 2006, and Nate Kaeding, a third-round pick of the San Diego Chargers in 2004.
Conversely, 10 of the 15 least accurate were drafted.
It’s true that field goal percentages have skyrocketed in recent years, and thus skew these numbers toward recent seasons. But those higher conversion rates best illustrate today’s game and the environment in which the Buccaneers made the decision.
As it turned out, Aguayo performed poorly from the moment he arrived in training camp as a rookie, finishing 2016 with an NFL-low 71.1 conversion rate and missing two extra points. Unlike other positions, there was nowhere on the roster for him to hide while he developed. Regardless, it would have been fair to question this pick even if he had developed into the NFL’s best kicker.
In 2016, the Baltimore Ravens‘ Justin Tucker produced an NFL-best 97.4 conversion rate, making 38 of 39 field goals. The Dallas Cowboys‘ Dan Bailey, signed as an undrafted free agent, tied for No. 15 (of 32 qualified) kickers at 84.8. If Bailey had produced at Tucker’s level, it would have meant an additional 12 points for the Cowboys.
Since the start of 2010, the difference between No. 1 and No. 15 has averaged eight points per season.
You could argue that a top kicker is more likely to hit game-winning field goals, or at least avoid misses that lead to losses. But if the average kicker is not far behind from a percentage standpoint, the value of that gap should be reflected accordingly.
Would you rather have Tucker over Bailey? Probably. Is it worth using nearly a first-round pick’s worth of assets to find the next Tucker, when you’re at least just as likely to sign the next Bailey without using a pick at all? That answer seems obvious, and that’s not even taking into account the fact that the Buccaneers had to guarantee Aguayo $1.5 million in his rookie deal — a total that immediately put him into the top 10 of guarantees among kickers in the NFL.
This is not to pile on the Buccaneers or Licht, who has endured criticism from the moment he made the pick. But when something so egregious occurs, it’s important to discern the true lessons. This wasn’t the unfortunate failure of an otherwise bold move. It was a reminder that kicking is a world all to its own. The usual rules just don’t apply.