TAMPA — Count Matt Gay among those shocked that the Bucs drafted a kicker in the fifth round Saturday afternoon.
Gay, a two-time All-American placekicker at Utah and former Lou Groza award winner, thought his named might be called in the sixth or seventh round on Saturday. He was also prepared to go undrafted and have to latch on with a team as a free agent.
So when he saw a Tampa area code calling his phone with the Bucs two picks away in the fifth round, he was surprised to say the least.
"No way, not right now," he recalled telling himself.
He's certainly not the only one to have that reaction. A peculiar draft selection to say the least -- especially given the wide net of needs Tampa Bay needed to address elsewhere on draft weekend -- the Bucs selected Gay with the 145th overall pick.
The Bucs already have two kickers under contract, including incumbent Cairo Santos, who already signed to receive a guaranteed $195,000 bonus.
Kickers are rarely drafted, and those selected before the seventh round are mostly unicorns, unless you're the Bucs, who made Gay the second kicker they've drafted in the past four years.
In 2016, general manager Jason Licht made the surprise pick of taking Roberto Aguayo out of FSU in the second round. Aguayo, another former Lou Groza winner, was a tremendous bust. He made just 22 of 33 field-goal attempt as a rookie and was cut the following preseason.
Other than Aguayo, only one other kicker has been drafted higher than Gay over the past 12 years. The Eagles selected Alex Henery in the fourth round with the 120th overall pick in 2011.
Licht said that shoring up the kicking game is important to new head coach Bruce Arians, which made using a draft pick on a kicker, especially one with Gay’s resume, worthwhile.
“I know he had a lot of interest,” Licht said of Gay. “To me and to us and to Bruce, it was a small price to pay to get a kicker. You wouldn’t say the same thing for a receiver if a receiver didn’t work out a couple years ago that you took in the second round. Would you be afraid to take a receiver in the fifth round? No. This is a very very important position.”
Gay was the first placekicker selected in the draft. He was the Lou Groza winner as the nation's top placekicker in 2017. Last season, he made 26-of-31 field goal attempts as a senior, including a school record stretch of 21 straight converted field goal attempts.
Santos joined the Bucs at midseason last year and added some stability to a position that was long unsteady since the team parted ways with longtime kicker Matt Bryant following the 2008 season. After converting 9 of 12 field goal attempts, the Bucs re-signed him last month.
In February, the Bucs signed Phillip Anderson, a Danish kicker who most recently played in the German Football League and performed well in the Michael Husted Kicking Pro Camp during Senior Bowl week.
“You take any position in the fifth round, you’re not saying he’s automatically made the team,” Licht said. “We want to bring in great competition for Cairo. We’ll let them kick it out in the preseason, and may the best man win.”
Regardless of who emerges from that competition, newly signed punter Bradley Pinion would likely handle kickoff duties, which Licht said would save wear and tear on the placekicker’s leg.
Gay was a perfect 16-for-16 on field goals from inside 40 yards last season, and his misses came at 56, 54 and 43 misses (three times). A two-time All-American kicker, Gay was a soccer player at Utah Valley, then transferred to Utah and initially joined the football team as a walk-on.
He has a big leg, making a school record eight field goals from 50 yards or longer, and his 86.1 field-goal percentage ranked second all-time at Utah.
“I think just being comfortable with my leg strength, being able to not have to stretch or put anything extra into those long field goals. I feel comfortable with my leg swing from those distances, so it’s almost like a normal leg swing. It’s not like I have to put any extra power behind it.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.