CINCINNATI — On Roberto Aguayo’s last night as a member of the team that drafted him in the second round in 2016, he slowly and quietly moved through his postgame routine: shower, change, pack up for the plane ride back to Tampa. From two lockers over, Nick Folk, the veteran brought in to compete with Aguayo for the Bucs’ placekicker job, looked over as if he was about to offer a few words of encouragement. But there wasn’t a lot to say.
Aguayo had just had another one of those nights that had to this point defined his young NFL career. An extra point went clanging off the right upright. Then, in the final minutes of the first preseason game, against the Bengals on Friday, another miss, this one a 47-yard field goal that was set up on the left hash mark and sailed wide right.
About 12 hours later the Bucs released the player on whom just 15 months ago they used the No. 59 pick in the draft. General manager Jason Licht will no doubt endure ridicule for the squandered draft choice, but he’s considered to be on overall solid footing with ownership for building a roster expected to contend for the NFC South.
Aguayo’s struggles in the NFL have been a source of great curiosity over the last year, particularly given that in his three seasons at Florida State he was the most accurate kicker in NCAA history, and even considered declaring for the draft after his redshirt sophomore season. But in the NFL that reliability disappeared: He made just 71 percent of his field goals as a rookie, and the longest field goal he made last season was just 43 yards, both stats the lowest of any NFL kicker with more than just a handful attempts in 2016.
When his rookie stumbles continued into the first game action of 2017, the Bucs’ patience ran out. The NFL Films cameras had been swarming around Aguayo at Paul Brown Stadium, meaning that the abrupt end to his career in Tampa Bay will no doubt be chronicled for a national audience on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” this week.
“I know what I am capable of, I know what I have done, people know what I have done, so I do have high expectations,” Aguayo said in front of his locker after the game on Friday night. “You can’t put your head down, as much as you want to, as much as maybe you feel down.”
Aguayo called the extra-point miss “unlucky”; as for the long field-goal miss, he said he thought he hit the ball well but it faded off course. His night began, though, with a made 20-yard field goal. For many kickers, connecting on a short kick early is often the key to getting them in a groove the rest of the game.
When his struggles began last summer, he consulted a mental coach he knew from his past training at IMG, and continued working with him this offseason. His strong leg is evident on his kickoffs, making it all the more clear that the issue has been in his head, not his foot. Asked on Friday the difference between his successful college career and his inconsistent NFL one, Aguayo mentioned the stakes being higher in the professional game.
“It’s a matter of just trying to relax and have fun. And I know I’m close,” Aguayo said. “Obviously there are more stakes in the NFL, so yeah, the pressure is higher, and not as much in college. But I know what I can do, and I know I’m capable of being in this league. You’ve just gotta move on, and I can get better.”
Aguayo did face high stakes in college, winning a national championship with Jameis Winston in his first season as Florida State’s kicker. But pressure of being the rare kicker taken with a high draft pick—he was the first one taken in the first two rounds of the draft since 2005—plus the fact that the Bucs went so far as to spend third- and fourth-rounders to trade up to get him with that pick, no doubt upped the ante.
“That’s how it worked out. I don’t regret it,” Aguayo said Friday night. “People ask me, Do you regret being [a second-round pick]? No. Whatever it was—first round, seventh round, undrafted—at the end of the day I’m here. You’ve gotta put all that aside and go out and do your job.”
You can’t talk to Aguayo without hearing his earnestness and his willingness to answer for his errors on the field. He’s a young player who wants to get it right in the worst way—almost to his own detriment.
Aguayo said he drew some inspiration from fellow Florida Stater Sebastian Janikowski, who was selected in the first round in 2000 and connected on less than 70 percent of his field goals in his rookie year. But Janikowski’s accuracy improved significantly in his Year 2, and 17 seasons later he still has as a job in the NFL.
“I’m not doing what I’m capable of, but in the past, it’s [happened] before, with a first-round kicker,” Aguayo said. “I know what I am capable of, and it’s just a matter of keep pushing. Keep pushing, and it’s going to come.”
He won’t have that chance in Tampa. The Buccaneers gave him one year of patience, but no more. By the time he missed those two kicks in Cincinnati, his margin for error had already been used up. Suddenly the NFL future of a 2016 second-round pick in up is up the air. He had to have known his release was a possibility after the game on Friday night, but when asked what he thought was next for him, he certainly didn’t let that show.
“You’ve got to be optimistic,” he said. “With how it’s been, yeah, it’s been hard. Not all the way high. But that’s what a career is, that’s what sports is. Sometimes you are going to do good, sometimes you are going to do bad, but at the end of the day, you can’t let it defeat you.”
Then, with his head down, he headed out of the Buccaneers locker room, for what would be the last time.
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