Sunday, August 19, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Can kicker Roberto Aguayo make the Bucs a winner? The numbers are clear

Missed field goals sting.

The Bucs know this feeling well.

There was the 19-9 loss to the Texans last season when Kyle Brindza missed three field goals and an extra point. There was the 34-23 loss to the Panthers the next week, when Brindza missed two more field goals and another extra point.

The year before, there were blocked kicks in close losses to the Rams and the Browns.

One man who still feels the sting of those misses: Bucs general manager Jason Licht. In May, he traded up into the second round of the NFL draft to take Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo.

"This is the best kicker I've ever seen in college, my favorite kicker," Licht told the Times. "I'm not going to risk (not) getting him and then have to go through a kicking carousel again during my tenure. I want to get the best kicker. Every position, I want to get the best."

There's no question that Aguayo could be among the best. But does having the best kicker matter — and matter enough to be worth the 59th pick?

You never, ever take a kicker with an early round pick, the doubters insist. They're just not that scarce of a commodity.

For answers, we turned to the numbers. And the numbers are clear.

They don't work in Licht's favor.

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A kicker's impact

When we talk about kickers, we tend to think of them in pivotal moments. They make the clutch field goal to force a game into overtime. Or they shank the potential game-winner from inside the 30.

Case in point: Blair Walsh's excruciating miss in the final minute of the Vikings' wild-card playoff game against the Seahawks in January. Twenty-seven yards. Wide left. Game over. Season over. By a point.

Associated Press

The outcome was painful, but it doesn't mean the Vikings suddenly have a kicker problem. Walsh was exactly the kind of kicker Minnesota wanted in that situation — he had made 31 of his previous 32 attempts from inside 30 yards.

And such moments are rare, the data show.

In 2015, 62 games, just more than 23 percent, were decided by 3 or fewer points. That was up slightly from 2014 but consistent with the average from the previous decade.

Kicks with the game on the line were even less common. Of the more than 1,000 field goals attempted last season, 54 came in the final minute of the fourth quarter of tight games (score difference of 3 or fewer points) or in overtime. That, too, is consistent with figures from the previous decade.

But you can't just look at last-second field goals when measuring a kicker's impact, Aguayo told the Times.

"Every kick I think is a game-winner for me," he said. "I try to make every kick, and you don't know if that kick is going to affect the outcome of the game. … You make a big kick early in the game, that's points on the board. If you miss, that's momentum to the other team."

So what if we consider a kicker's entire body of work? Is there a relationship between a successful kicker and a successful season?

To find out, we analyzed the regular-season performances of every kicker who played in at least 10 games from 2006 to 2015. Then we looked at the win-loss records for each of those 64 kickers.

The analysis shows there is virtually no statistical relationship between a kicker's performance and his team's winning percentage. Simply put: Better kickers don't mean more wins.

To understand why, first look at touchdowns, which obviously matter. This chart plots the relationship between touchdowns and winning percentage over the past decade. The arrangement of the dots appear to create a straight line that trends upward — a strong positive correlation. You can safely predict that when a team scores more touchdowns, it wins more, too.

Eli Zhang, Thomas Bassinger | Times

Contrast that with the charts below plotting kickers' performances. The results are more scattered, revealing that teams can do well even when their kickers don't — and vice versa.

That's true when you consider the number of field goals kickers make per game.

Over 10 years, Mason Crosby, Caleb Sturgis and Jason Hanson made roughly the same number of tries — a little more than 1.6 per game. But their teams' winning percentages varied wildly.

Eli Zhang, Thomas Bassinger | Times

It's true when you consider how successful kickers are from long distances.

Cairo Santos, the Chiefs' kicker the past two seasons, averaged 37.7 yards per conversion. His predecessor, Ryan Succop (who now plays for the Titans), averaged 37.4 yards. Their win-loss records look very different.

Eli Zhang, Thomas Bassinger | Times

And the pattern holds for the percentage of field goals kickers make.

During the past five seasons, the Cowboys have won less frequently with Dan Bailey — the most accurate kicker of the past decade (90.6 percent conversion rate) — than they did during the previous five seasons with an assortment of kickers.

Eli Zhang, Thomas Bassinger | Times

Of course, some things cannot be measured, and the Bucs argue that kickers can shape games in less tangible ways.

"When a team is confident in a kicker, it can affect your game plan a little bit," Licht said. "You can know where you need to get to. We know that if we can't get it beyond that, we're still fine."

In Aguayo, the Bucs feel they've found an outlier.

"He was a leader there (at Florida State), and you rarely see that, that a kicker is considered one of the leaders of the team," Licht said. "It's just by nature of the position, they usually aren't. He's very hardworking, and he gains respect from guys because he works his craft as much as Jameis (Winston) does his."

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A perfect kicker

So what if Aguayo is as extraordinary as Licht expects?

He was extraordinary at FSU, where he made 69 of 78 field goals, including all 46 tries inside 40 yards. To those who count his 198 extra-point attempts, he is the most accurate kicker in NCAA history.

What if he's even better in the NFL?

In 2003, Mike Vanderjagt of the Colts went the entire season, including the playoffs, without missing a field goal or an extra point.

No one has matched that feat since.

What if in Aguayo's first NFL season, he's as accurate as Vanderjagt? How many points could the Bucs expect to gain over a run-of-the-mill kicker?

In 2015, the typical (median) kicker converted 30.5 of 33.5 extra points and 23.5 of 28 field goals. That's in line with the performance the Bucs got from Connor Barth (25 of 26 extra points, 23 of 28 field goals) after he replaced Kyle Brindza one month into the season.

If Aguayo posts a Vanderjagt-like perfect season, the Bucs can expect him to add 16.5 more points than a typical kicker, or 1 point per game. That's not much when you consider Tampa Bay allowed 75 more points than it scored last season. The Packers, an NFC wild-card team last postseason, had a differential 120 points better.

●●●

The mortar kick effect

The Bucs believe Aguayo can have an impact beyond just the number of times a ball passes through the uprights.

"There are lot of kickers that are very accurate — Connor Barth was an accurate kicker — but a lot of those don't have a powerful leg," Licht said. "(Aguayo's) also a weapon as a kickoff guy, too. He can either put it out of the end zone or he can hang it high and drop it on the 5 (yard line) or the 2."

Beginning this season, offenses will start at the 25-yard line after a touchback instead of the 20. In response, the Bucs might try "mortar" kicks, which sacrifice distance to add hang time. The greater the hang time, the greater the chance the coverage unit has of tackling the returner before he reaches the 25.

In his final season at Florida State, about half of Aguayo's kickoffs resulted in touchbacks and opponents starting at the 25-yard line. On kickoffs that didn't result in a touchback, opponents started, on average, around the 23-yard line.

In the NFL, the difference between starting at the 25 versus the 23 is just 0.14 points per possession, according to Pro Football Reference drive data since 2011, the season when the NFL moved kickoffs to the 35-yard line.

Assume Aguayo kicks the ball off five times a game and the Bucs stop each return at exactly the 23-yard line. How many points will they save over five kickoffs resulting in touchbacks?

0.7.

●●●

Where great kickers come from

In a recent interview with PewterReport.com, Licht revealed that an experience during a stint in New England influenced his decision to select Aguayo.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick asked Licht and team scouts to rank the roster. None of them ranked kicker Stephen Gostkowski in the top 10.

Associated Press

"After we were done, Bill said, 'Nobody wants to put Gostkowski in our top 10? Why, just because he's a kicker?' " Licht said. "Bill made us rethink that, and he got his point across. He said, 'You tell me 10 other players that are more important than him!' "

Gostkowski is fifth among active kickers in points scored (1,330) and third in field-goal percentage (87.3, minimum 100 attempts).

The Patriots drafted him — in the fourth round. Almost a decade passed before another team took a kicker earlier than New England took Gostkowski — No. 118 overall.

And when you drill down into the draft records of the 10 winningest teams during that period, you find that spending even a mid-round pick on a kicker is the exception, not the rule.

The chart below plots the Career Approximate Value (a Pro Football Reference statistic) of every kicker drafted since 1994, when the NFL went to a seven-round draft. It shows that many teams find good ones well into the later rounds. For every Nate Kaeding (drafted 65th in 2004), there's a Josh Scobee (drafted 137th). For every Sebastian Janikowski (drafted 17th in 2000), there's a Neil Rackers (drafted 169th).

Eli Zhang, Thomas Bassinger | Times

Kickers, it seems, are an anomaly. Contrast their value with the value of quarterbacks. What you see in the next chart is typical for offensive positions. The highest-performing players tend to be players who were drafted early. It's still possible to find value late but much more rare.

Eli Zhang, Thomas Bassinger | Times

We shared this research with Mathletics author and University of Houston visiting professor Wayne Winston, who has studied sports statistics and decisionmaking for decades. Before joining the school's Bauer College of Business, he taught at Indiana University for 38 years and has served as a consultant for the Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks.

The draft is a crapshoot, Winston said, and because of the high likelihood that a pick will flop, teams would be wise to put themselves in position to make as many picks as possible in the early rounds.

Based on his analysis of NFL statistics, he said the focus for teams in those early rounds should be on players who can help score or stop touchdowns, particularly in the passing game. "The importance of passing dwarfs everything."

With their first two picks — cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and defensive end Noah Spence — the Bucs did just that. But as much as they might like them right now, they won't truly know what they have until the games start.

There is one position teams can skip entirely and still hit the jackpot: kicker.

Among the all-time leaders in career field-goal percentage, 18 of the top 25 weren't even drafted.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.

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