Roberto Aguayo, Bucs wrestle with kicking conundrum

Through two weeks of preseason action, no rookie has been more scrutinized than Roberto Aguayo.

The second-round draft pick has already missed an extra-point try and a pair of field-goal attempts for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, misfires he concedes "shouldn't happen" with a kicker widely praised as a generational talent.

"You just have to fix it and keep moving on," Aguayo added.

To that end, he has reached out to former Packers and Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell and former Bucs special teams coordinator Billy Miller for help with his mechanics, per Roy Cummings of WDAE Tampa. Aguayo also has sought advice from a mental coach because, he told Cummings, his confidence has been shaken "a little bit."

"I'm just focusing on relaxing and sometimes not thinking about it too much," Aguayo explained. "When you're overthinking, like, 'OK, I have to do this and this and this,' you get too many thoughts in your head. Sometimes you have to sit back and relax and just kick it."

Aguayo is wrestling with a conundrum that has bedeviled kickers ever since the position was turned over to full-time specialists in the 1960s: A momentary loss of confidence often triggers a lapse in fundamentals.

The pressure-packed nature of the position demands more of a pre-kick mental vacuum than the more celebrated mental toughness.

Every summer, the Colts sign a talented young kicker with a stronger leg than 20-year veteran Adam Vinatieri. Every summer, Vinatieri's uncanny, unwavering consistency wins out in training camp.

"Kicking at this level is all about how you handle pressure," Vinatieri explained in an excellent 2007 New York Times article from Michael Lewis. "We're on an island; everyone is watching us. It's not like some play where only the coaches who can see the film can tell who screwed up. The difference between kickers is, can you do it when the lights are on?"

As Bill Parcells once explained, "kicking is a results-oriented business." The higher the standards, the lower the patience.

Jan Stenerud, the lone pure placekicker to gain election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame thus far, converted 66.8 percent of his career field-goal attempts from 1967 through 1985.

When former Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt's phone stopped ringing in 2006, he left pro football as the most accurate field-goal artist in NFL history, having converted 86.5 percent of his attempts.

A decade later, the league-wide conversion rate is 84.5 percent, per NFL Media research.

What is the job security for an unpredictable kicker when coaches, teammates and fans operate under the assumption that his task is as effortless as shooting a free throw?

"Next to the quarterback, a coach's confidence wavers so much with who the kicker is," one NFC executive told Lewis in 2007. "If a linebacker or a running back or a wide receiver has a bad game, it's, 'Keep him in there. He'll be fine.' If a coach loses just a little bit of confidence in a kicker, you're making a change."

Just 11 of the 32 primary NFL kickers last season were drafted at all. Six of the top seven grades in Pro Football Focus' 2015 kicker ratings went to players who entered the league as undrafted free agents.

While it's certainly premature to hang the undependable label on Aguayo, the sudden presence of his coterie of advisors captures the league's reluctance to invest early-round draft capital in a position that relies as much upon an elusive combination of innate traits and mental gymnastics as it does pure talent.

There's no test at the NFL Scouting Combine capable of accurately predicting that the most highly regarded kicker to enter the draft in years would see his confidence dip before his first meaningful game.

Aguayo will enjoy greater early-career latitude by dint of his pedigree and general manager Jason Licht's bold investment. Here's hoping he doesn't need that longer leash in football's most unforgiving profession.

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