“Competition is a beautiful thing in this league,” Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht said during the NFL draft in April.
Except, of course, at quarterback. We can’t be having that. Don’t want anyone looking over his shoulder.
Kicker, though, is another matter. It’s always a circus here in Tampa Bay, and ringmaster Licht has set the stage for quite an act this summer: veteran Cairo Santos vs. rookie Matt Gay. You absolutely, positively can’t miss it. The winner goes on to the Big Top, aka Raymond James Stadium.
Santos, the 5-foot-8, 160-pound plucky underdog from Brazil, expected the Bucs to bring in competition.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of guaranteed money to feel that ‘I’m going to be the guy,’” he said.
Gay, though, isn’t just any challenger. Standing 6 feet tall and weighing 230 pounds, he’s a beast who has a leg that swings like a sledgehammer. And the Bucs used a fifth-round draft pick to get him.
“The draft pick itself was maybe the surprise,” Santos said.
We are all Cairo Santos.
“At the same time, you keep your head down and take one day at a time and compete,” he said. “I don’t think anyone really has the edge. It’s a matter of who makes more kicks.”
Is it really?
“I wondered that the first couple of days” of offseason workouts, Santos said.
“Worrying about those things that are going to happen, who they’re going to keep, those are things that are so far out of my control. If I’m here today and I’m kicking in practice, if I make 100 percent of my kicks, that’s my No. 1 role. If they decide to cut me, they decide to keep me, it’s outside of my control.”
So what will the Bucs do? Barring a preseason injury or meltdown, they’re going to keep Gay and cut Santos. You know it. I know it. They know it. Let’s think this through.
• In March, the Bucs signed Bradley Pinion to a four-year deal that will pay him $2.6 million this season, making him one of the 10 highest-paid punters in the league. That’s a steep price to pay, especially for a team that has precious little salary cap space. It’s justifiable, maybe, if Pinion does more than punt, as he did in San Francisco, where he also handled kickoff duties.
The Pinion signing made more sense when the Bucs re-signed Santos, who might no longer have the leg for kickoffs. Only a third of his kickoffs for Tampa Bay last season resulted in touchbacks. Between Pinion and Santos, it seemed as if the Bucs had all things kicking covered.
And the Bucs still drafted Gay, which tells us a couple of things (assuming that they had a plan): 1.) Santos was their “safety school.” It’s sort of like when a student really wants to attend the University of Florida but applies to Florida State University just in case UF turns him down. 2.) The Bucs liked Gay so much that they didn’t want to risk another team taking him in the sixth or seventh rounds.
• The Bucs drafted Gay despite not knowing whether he had made a pressure kick during his two seasons at Utah. When asked, Licht said this: “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.”
• The Bucs really, really don’t like to admit when they’re wrong. Case in point: After they cut kicker Roberto Aguayo in 2017, Licht told Peter King, “What did I learn from this? I’ve said this before, but when we took him, we essentially anointed him. If I could do it again, I would have gone back and brought in competition to challenge him.”
Let that sink in. The lesson Licht learned wasn’t that he shouldn’t have drafted a kicker, especially in the second round. The lesson Licht learned was that he should have brought in competition. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
• Kickers who are drafted in the fifth round or earlier have a leg up on their competition. In the past 20 drafts, teams have taken a kicker in the first five rounds 17 times. Only two of those kickers didn’t make it to the regular season with their original team. In some cases, the kicker those teams drafted really was their best option. In some cases, the teams fell victim to the sunk cost fallacy, the idea that the more money and time you invest in something, the harder it is to abandon.
• Speaking of money, the Bucs can release either kicker and not incur significant salary cap penalties. If they cut Santos, they would take a dead money hit of $195,000. If they cut Gay, they would take a hit of $325,772. Factor in each player’s base salary and the total cost of keeping Santos for this season would be $1,325,772 and the total cost of keeping Gay for this season would be $771,443. If all things are equal, the Bucs have the financial incentive — half a million dollars — to keep Gay.
For most teams, that amount wouldn’t drive their decision-making, but for the Bucs, who have less than $5 million in salary cap space, it matters. They have yet to sign two of their draft picks (Devin White and Jamel Dean) and will need some cushion during the season to replace players they lose to injury.
Santos is entering his sixth season in the NFL, long enough to know nothing is guaranteed. He has won jobs before — as a rookie for the Chiefs in 2014, he beat out incumbent Ryan Succop — and he has lost jobs before — a groin injury derailed his 2017 season and led to his release from the Chiefs.
“We all know that we’re going to say goodbye to this game one day,” he said, “whether it’s because of performance, because of injuries or you just decide to retire or your passion has changed. One day, it’s going to end.”
Until that day comes, Santos is completely focused on the present.
“I still feel like I’m living a dream,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how long I’ve played or what I’ve accomplished. Until my number’s not on the roster anymore or I feel like I don’t want to do it anymore, I’m going to give it 100 percent.”
“It’s my game. It’s me kicking a ball. I control that and the work that I put in. I think that’s the mindset that I bring every day, and no matter the outcome, I want me to kick well, I want Matt to kick well and, hopefully, we both have a job somewhere.”
Contract and salary cap figures are from Spotrac and Over The Cap. Contact Thomas Bassinger at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.