BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, nine kickers have been top-60 draft picks. Some had long, successful careers, like the still-active Sebastian Janikowski (17th overall, 2000) and Jason Hanson (56th overall, 1992). Others, like John Lee (32nd overall, 1986) quickly flamed out of the league.
Roberto Aguayo is one of those nine highly-picked kickers, who came into the league with a lot more pressure — and a lot less competition — than most rookie kickers face. He missed nine of his 31 field goal attempts last year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and also missed two PATs — hardly the level of success the Bucs thought they’d get out of someone who was so good at Florida State.
After a shaky start to training camp, the Bucs waived Aguayo last week, and on Sunday, the Bears claimed him (HBO's "Hard Knocks" reportedly will air Aguayo finding out he was released Tuesday night). He was in uniform, wearing No. 1, for Monday’s final training camp practice at Olivet Nazarene University, and said he’s excited to put his experience in Tampa behind him.
“It’s unfortunate,” Aguayo said. “What we both wanted, — it just never flourished. I’m excited to be here with the Bears and I'm excited for this fresh opportunity and a new start.”
Perhaps a fresh start is what Aguayo needs to re-gain the confidence he built up at Florida State, where he made 88.5 percent of his field goals and didn’t miss a PAT. For the Bears, claiming Aguayo was a low-risk move — coach John Fox said the money they took on wasn’t “significant enough to not take a look.” A week after cutting undrafted rookie Andy Phillips, there’s no competition again for veteran Connor Barth — who came to the Bears after losing his job in Tampa to Aguayo after the 2015 season.
Barth is familiar with how competitive kicking jobs are during training camp, having made stops in Kansas City (2008), Tampa (2009-2012, 2015) and Denver (2014) before making 78 percent of his field goals for the Bears last year.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in training camp without competition, no matter when I signed a new deal with Tampa or whatever, they always brought in competition,” Barth said. “It’s something I’ve always dealt with. … You always hear the old saying, for our position, you kind of competing against yourself. It doesn’t really matter what Roberto does because if I don’t kick well, then I won’t be anywhere.
“So you just gotta kind of trust what you’ve been doing, focus on yourself and if you make your kicks, whether it’s here, you’re obviously competing for 31 other teams. So you just kind of got to have fun and see what happens.”
On Aguayo’s first day with the Bears, Barth made every field goal he attempted in practice, which didn’t go unnoticed by Fox.
“Connor had a great day,” Fox said. “We had a field goal day today and he was 100 percent in all of his kicks. So I think that competition is good for our football team.”
The challenge for Aguayo, then, will be to prove he’s more reliable than Barth in about a three-week window of opportunity. That’s a limited timeframe, though it should still be long enough for the Bears to know who their best kicking option is coming out of the preseason.
“At the end of the day, they’ll decide,” Aguayo said. “It’s out of my hands. I just go and do what I’ve gotta do, focus and hone in. Excited for the fresh start, new scenery. Excited to be here.”