Not much money and a lot of accountability – the life of an NFL kicker

The recent release of Roberto Aguayo by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has shone the spotlight firmly on the lives and challenges of NFL kickers.
Aguayo’s release was long expected. He had been drafted in the second round by the Buccaneers in 2016. That was unusual, since teams seldom use high draft picks on kickers or punters. The last time a team used a first round pick on a kicker was the Oakland Raiders’ selection of Sebastian Janikowski. That pick definitely worked well – Janikowski is still playing 15 years later and still booting the ball a great distance.
Needless to say, when Aguayo began performing poorly, the excoriation was loud, with all manner of comments about how the Buccaneers could have used the pick on a much better player.
Aguayo had kicked poorly all of last year, missing numerous kick attempts during the season, which had put him on thin ice. The Buccaneers brought Nick Folk in to compete with him this offseason. Both men have not exactly set the world alight, but Aguayo’s continued misses in pre-season led to the Buccaneers terminating his contract last week. (the Chicago Bears claimed him on waivers. It will be interesting to see how he performs in a different place).
However, kickers are more likely to have a shorter shelf life in the NFL. The role is as much a mental one as a physical one. The “yips” can affect kickers just like golfers. Suddenly a kicker will begin to mis-hit kicks and send them in other directions than the correct one. The NFL being what it is, this is usually obvious in a game situation, where the team asks the kicker to hit a field goal to tie the game or win it. If the kicker then misses, and the team loses, the kicker is Goat of the day. A couple of those kinds of misses, and the kicker is either fired, or on thin ice.
There are plenty of kickers in reserve.So teams with a kicking problem can fire the kicker. However, that does not guarantee that their kicking situation will improve. The Buccaneers are discovering this. Having fired Aguayo, they only have Nick Folk on the roster, and he is not kicking well either. The Buccaneers week 1 kicker might still be a player who is not currently on the roster.
Churning the kicker and punter positions usually never works well. A few seasons ago, when Tom Coughlin was still their coach, the Jacksonville Jaguars went through about 4 kickers in a season. They had a revolving door at the position, picking up kickers, and then firing them rapidly after they missed in games. The approach led to appalling kicking and punting play, and Coughlin was fired at the end of the season.
Kickers who are “money”, who consistently boot the ball between the uprights in any kind of game situation, are thin on the ground. Adam Vinatieri is still kicking well at age 42, but for every Adam Vinatieri there a couple of dozen kickers who hang around for a couple of seasons before washing out, or hitting consistency issues.
Kickers fall into the same category as quarterbacks in that there is only one player at that position on the field, so if the extra point attempt sails wide right, it is usually the kicker who gets the entire blame. It is like the quarterback who throws the ball to The Other Guys when his receiver is in the right place on the field. In other areas of the game, accountability is more diffuse. Blown assignments in a defensive scheme might result in the opponents scoring a touchdown, but you don’t often hear fans or coaches intimating that an individual player is on thin ice.
Yet kickers are usually paid minimum salary or close to it. They seldom make more than $2m in a season, which is low compared to many other position or skill players who work as part of a unit. They are also treated as expendable in a way that other players are not. The attitude appears to be “Easy come, easy go”. If the kicker misses in a big game, he is often booted himself and replaced by yet another enthusiastic replacement, who may turn out to be no better over the medium term.
I suspect that the fungibility and lack of longevity of kickers is partly due to that attitude.

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