When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Roberto Aguayo in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft after trading up to the 59th pick, the football world melted down. With Aguayo now struggling in his first NFL preseason, far more eyes are now focused on him than any rookie kicker in recent memory. Not even Sebastian Janikowski, the Oakland Raiders’ first-round pick in 2000, has seen this level of scrutiny before playing in an NFL regular season game. What is the cause for Aguayo’s struggles and will they continue? Chuck Zodda breaks down the tape on the young Tampa Bay placekicker.
The 2016 preseason has been a trying time for Aguayo. In his first kick in a preseason game, on an extra point against the Philadelphia Eagles, Aguayo wrapped his foot around the ball and hooked the kick off the left upright. Things got worse when the Buccaneers faced off against the Jacksonville Jaguars in their second preseason game, with Aguayo going 2-for-4 on field goals, though he did make all three extra point attempts. Earlier this week Aguayo was booed at practice after struggling during special teams periods in joint practices with the Cleveland Browns.
Prior to the NFL Draft, I gave Aguayo my highest-possible grade for a kicking prospect, noting that he was worth a third-round grade. I will not give kickers a first or second-round grade due to the fact that with so many high-quality kickers today, there is little drop-off to replacement level – as well as the fact that utilizing a high pick on a kicker generally creates a vortex of pressure which makes the natural development curve of kickers nearly impossible to follow.
Nevertheless, Tampa Bay traded up to grab Aguayo. At the time, I outlined how, despite the fact that Aguayo was the strongest kicking prospect in a decade, the use of a second-round pick on him plus the fact that the Buccaneers traded up for him was likely to put Aguayo in a no-win situation.
NFL kickers, even great ones, can and will struggle early in their careers. Stephen Gostkowski went 7-for-10 from 30-39 yards for the New England Patriots in his rookie season. The Baltimore Ravens saw a young Steven Hauschka make just 66.7% of his 15 kicks over his first 12 games in his first two years in the league. Adam Vinatieri, the greatest kicker in the history of football, missed three of the old, short extra points and a 25-yard field goal attempt in his rookie year with New England. Justin Tucker and Dan Bailey are exceptions to the rule, rather than the norm when it comes to rookie kickers and performance.
And let us not forget that the next kicker who never misses a kick will be the first.
But Aguayo does have some issues to work out, both mechanically and mentally. The real question is whether he will be given enough rope by his coaches, the media, and fans to make the improvements necessary to be an NFL-caliber kicker. Let’s examine the tape first.
The Mechanical Side of Kicking
In Aguayo’s pre-draft profile, I wrote:
Many of his misses are outside the left upright due to improper timing of his skip-step and too much hip clearance, as it brings him too far in this direction too quickly.
In fact, this is exactly what he showed when he missed an extra point attempt in Tampa Bay’s first preseason game. But Aguayo’s two misses against the Jaguars were outside the right upright, rather than the hooking trajectories he displayed on many of his earlier misses.
How did a kicker who so often missed to the left start missing to the right?
The answer lies in a small mechanical error that is preventing Aguayo’s hips from coming through the ball cleanly and in a direct line to the target.
Facing Jacksonville, Aguayo lines up for a 32-yard attempt from the right hash:
Aguayo fires a six-inch jab step at the top of his motion to start his move towards the ball. He is slightly more upright in his initial move than he displayed at Florida State, but he displays this tweak throughout his approach on all kicks in the preseason, meaning it is likely a deliberate adjustment.
As Aguayo makes his plant, everything appears to be in line and flowing through the uprights for the young kicker:
His hips are opening to the target, and he is poised to begin his dynamic move through the ball that made him such a strong prospect coming out of college. His left arm leads his body through the rotation, perfectly synced with his hips as he drives his right foot towards the ball.
And then everything goes wrong.
Rather than continuing to open, Aguayo’s left side instead hunches over and closes off, preventing his hips from clearing properly. If you are sitting at a desk, standing on a train, or pretty much anywhere other than in direct control of a motor vehicle (and if you are, why are reading this?), try something briefly. Take your left shoulder and try to touch your bellybutton with it. Now try to swing your right hip through the same point, and feel the tension that develops in your back due to the forces fighting against each other. This is what is happening to Aguayo here: He is both sapping his power and also preventing his right hip from driving through the ball properly due to a lack of clearance.
Unsurprisingly, Aguayo misses off the right side:
The full video shows how Aguayo’s initially-strong momentum through the zone is completely destroyed by this small mechanical error:
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Later though, Aguayo makes a 34-yard attempt from the same hash, drilling it straight through the uprights. Why? Because Aguayo maintains a more upright posture through the point of impact that allows him to clear his hips properly:
A side-by-side comparison of the two frames shows the contrast between the different mechanics employed on each kick:
The left still, from the 32-yard miss, shows Aguayo’s left shoulder and back in a more hunched and closed position compared to what he displays on the right side on the 34-yard attempt. While the 32-yard miss was unfortunate – and Aguayo also missed a 49-yard attempt from the left hash due to the same mechanics – the 34-yard make was his final kick of the game, and that fact demonstrates an ability on Aguayo’s part to address mechanical flaws in-game, which is a critical skill for a kicker to possess. He needs to improve this skill to the point where he is capable of identifying and fixing mechanical issues after one kick rather than two, but this at least displays a starting basis to work from.
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The Mental Side of Kicking
Aguayo has admitted to feeling pressure and overthinking things early in his young career. Those are not unusual things for a kicker to experience as they transition to the NFL. The real question is whether he can battle through them to return to the naturalness of form that made him such a strong kicker in college.
If the past two weeks is any guide for the future, the scrutiny of Aguayo is likely only to deepen if he continues to struggle. Media, fans, coaches, and front office personnel are all focused on Aguayo’s struggles at the moment and, with every missed kick, that focus will intensify. Aguayo cannot rely on people suddenly forgetting he is the Buccaneers’ kicker: He is going to have to display a level of focus, confidence, and toughness that is unparalleled in order to dig himself out of this. There is no lonelier position in sports than a kicker who is missing kicks.
So where does Aguayo go mentally from here?
Front offices and coaches often desire kickers who show little emotion whether making or missing kicks. An even-keeled kicker is typically desirable because that personality demonstrates an ability to bounce back after the inevitable misses that occur during a kicking career.
But Aguayo has never been a “normal” kicker. He has always had a larger personality – and profile – than your average kicker-next-door type. While he has undoubtedly been humbled by this experience, Aguayo needs to find someone he can trust who understands his mechanics and mentality, and to listen to that one person and that one person only at this time.
There are likely tens, if not hundreds of voices telling Aguayo what to do at this point. Trying to listen to all of them will result in confusion and indecision. Aguayo needs to make a decision on what person to trust, and then he needs to go out and trust that person and his own ability and simply kick the football.
My special teams coach in college often spoke of trusting yourself and making mistakes at full speed. That is exactly what Aguayo needs to do now. He will continue to make mistakes and miss kicks. That is part of being a kicker. He needs to accept it, and step up to the challenge and show that despite the misses, he is willing to still go out and hammer footballs the same way he did before.
Aguayo had a lot placed on him due to the circumstances in which he was drafted. While an average kicker may be given a four or five game period in which to correct mechanical issues and get back on track, Aguayo has a massive following watching him after just two preseason games. Remember, Aguayo has yet even to kick in a regular season game at this point.
There is, however, little that Aguayo can do about these circumstances and outsized expectations. But if Aguayo can overcome the tremendous pressure he is facing at this point and become what I, and many others, thought he could be, maybe that mental toughness is going to end up being worth that second-round pick. Aguayo is young. He has struggled due to errors in both the mechanical and the mental sides of the game. But he is a tremendous natural talent, and deserves a far longer audition than simply two preseason games. He needs to make kicks. Let’s give him a chance to do just that.
Follow @ITP_ChuckZ on Twitter. Check out his other work here, an unlikely Super Bowl MVP, an under-appreciated great NFL kicker, and his inquiry into the mechanics of why Dan Carpenter keeps missing FGs.
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All images courtesy of NFL Game Pass.