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Why changing NFL could make kicker Aguayo a Day 2 pick

FILE - In this Sept. 12, 2015, file photo, Florida State's Roberto Aguayo kicks an extra point from the hold of Cason Beatty during an NCAA college football game against South Florida in Tallahassee, Fla. Aguayo, who is the most accurate kicker in NCAA history, could be the first kicker in 10 years to be selected in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon, File) NY153
Published Apr. 25, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — With teams shrouding themselves in secrecy and smokescreens as Thursday's NFL draft approaches, you can tell the soaring stock of Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo by the relative silence surrounding him.

"Everybody's trying to be quiet about it," NFL Network analyst Charles Davis said.

And that makes one of the draft's biggest unknowns even more intriguing.

Aguayo left the Seminoles as the most accurate kicker in NCAA history, and his early entry into the professional ranks comes after recent NFL rule changes to extra points and kickoffs put a greater premium on a once-dispensable position.

The combination of the two might be enough to make Aguayo the first kicker chosen in the top three rounds since former Buc Mike Nugent was drafted in the 2005 second round by the Jets.

"He's going to be invaluable," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said.

He certainly was for the Seminoles.

The 2013 Lou Groza Award winner as college football's top kicker made all 198 of his extra points in college and all 46 of his field goals inside 40 yards. His kickoffs helped the 'Noles rank seventh nationally in opponents' starting field position, according to Football Outsiders.

While those feats are impressive on their own, they're magnified as the NFL evolves.

"I think the value of the kicker is going through the roof," said Billy Miller, a former Bucs special teams assistant who is coaching Aguayo at Bradenton's IMG Academy.

Especially compared to where it was a year ago.

The NFL considered eliminating extra points last offseason because kickers were too automatic; they missed only eight attempts during all of 2014.

The league ultimately pushed point-after tries back 13 yards, from 20 yards to 33, and the resulting 94.2 PAT percentage was the lowest since 1979.

The second key rule change came last month when the league voted to bring touchbacks out to the 25-yard line, not the 20. That difference might seem small, but it drastically changes how offenses call plays.

Those extra five yards were so valuable that Fisher overhauled his kicking philosophy. He didn't want Aguayo to blast the ball out of the end zone. Instead, Aguayo tried to boot the ball in the corners of the field and in a four-yard window centered on the goal line. If his kick could hang in the air for at least four seconds, his speedy FSU teammates could prevent a deep return.

"With our athletes, 90 percent of the time we're going to tackle you inside the 20-yard line," Fisher said. "So if we gain six, eight, 10 yards of field position on every play, why would we not do that?"

And that was what Aguayo did. Opponents failed to return the ball past the 20-yard line on 16 of his kickoffs in the fall, and started beyond the 30 only nine times.

NFL teams seem likely to adopt a similar strategy. Aguayo started his draft training by trying to blast kickoffs out of the end zone — the method that resulted in touchbacks on more than half of last year's NFL kickoffs. At a workout a week after the rule change, an NFL coach told Aguayo to start popping them up near the goal line.

"It's the same thing I've done here, so I know what to do," Aguayo said. "I think it works out in my favor."

What that means for this week's draft remains a mystery. Bucs general manager Jason Licht said teams still don't have much of a sample size to figure out the new rules' long-term effects.

"It's going to be interesting how it plays out this year," Licht said. "You still want a kicker that can make all the field goals and kick it into the end zone. Right now, we still haven't changed."

But NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said that change is coming.

Stephen Gostkowski's missed PAT doomed the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and reaffirmed the value of a reliable kicker such as Aguayo. Add in his history of sky kicks that NFL teams are likely to soon employ, and Jeremiah believes Aguayo could sneak into the second round.

"You got someone that's automatic on extra points, that can give you points and field goals and can also affect the field position in kickoffs," Jeremiah said. "That player has a chance to have a dramatic impact on you, especially when you think how many games are won by three points or less on a weekly basis."

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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