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It’s not smart to draft kickers, but the Buccaneers haven’t gotten the message

Math: Touchdowns matter more than field goals.
Matt Gay, the Bucs' fifth-round pick Saturday, converted 86.2 percent of his field goals in his two seasons at Utah. [RICK SCUTERI | Associated Press]
Published Apr. 28
Updated Apr. 28

TAMPA — Oops, they did it again.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted a kicker.

Not an offensive lineman. Not a running back. Not even another cornerback.

They. Drafted. A. Kicker.

That’s twice in four drafts.

Just when you begin to trust them, they trick you again, like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown at the last moment. That’s the Bucs life.

In 2016, they spent a second-round pick on Roberto Aguayo. “This is the best kicker I’ve ever seen in college, my favorite kicker,” general manager Jason Licht said.

He cut Aguayo after one season.

At least Licht waited until the fifth round this time.

“Right now we have a coach who really believes in kickers and the importance of it and stresses it,” he said.

Even so, it was a waste of a pick. Kickers just aren’t that scarce of a commodity. Entering Saturday, only six teams, including the Bucs, had bothered to use a pick on one in the past three drafts. Just one is still playing for his original team, and that kicker — Jason Sanders of the Dolphins — was the 229th player taken last year.

Meanwhile, there are numerous examples of kickers who weren’t drafted and went on to have successful careers. Justin Tucker, the best kicker in the NFL today, wasn’t drafted. Nor was Robbie Gould, Wil Lutz and Matt Bryant. Adam Vinatieri, the clutch four-time Super Bowl winner and likely Hall of Famer? He kicked in Amsterdam before landing with the Patriots in 1996.

Maybe Matt Gay will arrive in Tampa this summer and beat incumbent Cairo Santos for the job. Maybe he’ll have a great season. Maybe he’ll have a great career. A 2017 winner of the Lou Groza Award, given to college football’s top kicker, he has the leg and the talent.

Say that happens. It still won’t be enough to justify using the 145th pick on him.

That’s because there is virtually no statistical relationship between a kicker’s performance and his team’s winning percentage, a 2016 Tampa Bay Times analysis found. Better kickers don’t mean more wins.

Cut the data any way you’d like.

Field goals made per game? No correlation.

Field goal distance? No correlation.

Field goal percentage? No correlation.

What matters? Touchdowns. To stress the obvious, when a team scores more touchdowns, it wins more games.

Doubters will point to memorable misses, such as Cody Parkey’s last-second double-doink miss in the Bears’ 16-15 wild-card playoff loss to the Eagles last season. No doubt, the miss stung, but it wasn’t the reason Chicago lost. The Bears lost because they failed to score a touchdown in three trips inside the red zone. They scored one touchdown all game. The Eagles scored two.

As for Gay’s track record on last-second field goals, well, he doesn’t have one. In his two seasons at Utah, he didn’t attempt a single go-ahead field goal in the final minutes of a close game. He did, though, convert a late try against Oregon last season. The field goal extended the Utes’ lead to eight points with 15 seconds left. It was a 24-yarder.

When asked if any of Gay’s kicks caught his attention, Licht said, “We’ve watched every kick. We’ve watched them all. Just like we do with every position, we watch every game. There’s a lot of different moments. He’s had some misses. He’s had a lot of makes.”

Despite his lack of late-game kicking experience, Gay said he feels he handles pressure well.

“I stay calm and am able to stay stable in those (high-pressure) moments and be able to hit those (kicks) to give my team a chance,” he said. “I know my team trusts me, and that helps my confidence to go out and make those because they have all the faith in me.”

Handling pressure is one thing, but enduring the ghosts of Tampa Bay kickers past is another. Those ghosts drove Aguayo to a different sport. These days, he’s an intern with a PGA charitable foundation.

So if the Bucs didn’t see a player on the board that they liked, what should they have done?

Anything else.

Consider this quote from Mathletics author and Indiana University professor emeritus Wayne Winston: “The importance of passing dwarfs everything.”

It’s a touchdowns league, not a field goals league. The focus for teams during the draft, Winston told the Times in 2016 after the Aguayo pick, should be on players who can help score or stop touchdowns, particularly in the passing game. In other words, teams should try to solve the problems that are worth solving.

If Gay wins the job, he’ll be the Bucs’ ninth kicker in eight seasons. The others: Connor Barth (2012 and 2015), Rian Lindell (2013), Patrick Murray (2014 and 2017), Kyle Brindza (2015), Aguayo (2016), Nick Folk (2017), Chandler Catanzaro (2018) and Santos (2018).

“We’ve exhausted everything we can to try to find a kicker,” Licht said. “We’ll continue to, like every other position. We’ve drafted one, signed free agents, UFAs (undrafted free agents), street free agents, gone to Denmark. We like this guy.”

And the carousel continues.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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