by Jack Graham
Among other things, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been plagued by the kicking struggles of rookie Roberto Aguayo throughout the 2016 season. Through 9 games, Aguayo has made only 9 of 14 Field Goals, a rate of 64% that qualifies him as the least accurate kicker in the league. Of course, these lackluster numbers would not typically be grounds for an interesting story, except for the fact that Aguayo also happened to be the Buccaneers second round draft pick.
While selecting a kicker so early in the draft is not unprecedented (the Oakland Raiders drafted Sebastian Janikowski in the first round in 2000), it is incredibly rare. It is not controversial to say that Aguayo has not met the lofty expectations imposed on him by his draft status, but it is also natural to wonder: how well would Aguayo have to perform in order to justify such a high draft pick? And then, based on his college performance, was it reasonable for the Bucs to expect him to meet this standard?
Aguayo was arguably the best college kicker in the country throughout his 3-year tenure at Florida State, converting 69 of 78 field goals for a remarkable 88.5 FG%. For comparison, the NFL average FG% in 2016 was 86.9. However, Aguayo would represent an extreme improvement for the Bucs, who have posted an average FG% of 77.4 in the three-year period from 2013-2015. Assuming Aguayo had been just as accurate for the Bucs as he had been in college, he would have made 82 field goals, 10 more than the Bucs actually converted over the period for a difference of 10 points per season. Now, these points are not insignificant – 10 points over sixteen games could result in at least one extra win. However, we must compare that positive impact to the one forfeited. That is, does the average, non-kicker, 59 overall draft pick contribute more than 10 points per season to his team?
This is where the calculation becomes tricky. Unlike kickers, whose performance can be evaluated relatively easily in numerical terms, position players cannot be so easily quantified. For instance, an average touchdown pass depends on many players: the quarterback to make an accurate throw, the receiver to beat his defender, the offensive lineman to hold his block. Thus, it is impossible to assign a point value to the performance of any one player. We can say in relative terms that one receiver is better than another, but it is difficult to compare the contributions of position players with those of kickers.
That being said, several football analytic sites provide statistics similar to MLB’s well-known stat of wins above replacement (WAR), which uses individual statistics to calculate a player’s contribution to a team in terms of wins added. Most notably, perhaps, is Pro-Football-Reference’s Approximate Value (AV) which assigns every player a number correlating with that player’s seasonal performance as a means of describing that player’s contribution. The metric is fairly rudimentary, particularly for players such as offensive lineman without a strong presence in the box score, but it does provide a somewhat quantitative method for comparing players across positions. The stat is not particularly friendly to kickers – all-time kicking greats Jason Elam and Stephen Gostkowski both have a 6 AV as a season high, while tens of position players have posted AVs over 20. Of course, the nature of football makes it difficult to rely on such statistics. While WAR has become a popular and respected stat in the MLB, baseball is a sport in which statistics are determined almost solely by individual performance. In football, on the other hand, posting impressive statistics depends on numerous factors outside the player’s control, from the skill of his teammates in setting him up for success to the extent to which the offensive or defensive system features him.
Even if we can’t necessarily prove that a “normal” draft pick would have been more valuable for the team, we can compare Aguayo his competition. Since no kicker was selected in the draft besides Aguayo, the Bucs could have had their choice of any other draft-eligible kicker. Duke’s Ross Martin, for example, converted 83.9% of his field goals over his four-year collegiate career and was 4-5 from 50+ yards. Thus, the difference between Martin and Aguayo, assuming each continued to perform on their respective levels, may have been miniscule.
While the decision to draft Aguayo so early is certainly dubious from a quantitative perspective, and has been a miserable one so far statistically, it is certainly understandable qualitatively. Any football fan knows that there is nothing more frustrating than an efficient offense leading a commanding drive down the field late in the 4th quarter, only to have a scrawny placekicker botch the game-winning kick. Perhaps, then, the appeal of having a trusted kicker to nail clutch kicks late in games carries a value that cannot be translated into numbers.