A trendy sleeper pick with a kicker battle, the Buccaneers are in for a fascinating summer

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Friday June 2nd, 2017

TAMPA, Fla. — Roberto Aguayo didn’t attempt any extra points at the Buccaneers’ organized team activities Thursday. If he had, the results would have been posted immediately to Twitter with all 140 characters in use.

The former second-round pick is in the battle of his football life with veteran Nick Folk in what is sure to be a main storyline in this summer’s edition of Hard Knocks. In one of the team’s first OTA sessions open to the media, he converted just one of his four kicks at skinny goalposts (which measure about eight and a half feet wide), and in another OTA session he hit four out of five. Of course, Folk hasn’t missed a kick at a practice where the media has been. And that certainly influences the perception of this competition.

“We evaluate the players every day. What the media sees is one thing, but the media doesn’t see the everyday battle,” Bucs general manager Jason Licht told me before the start of Thursday’s OTAs. “That day it was publicized that Roberto missed those field goals on the skinny post and Folk made them. Now over there [on another field in a different practice] is a different story that the media didn’t pick up on. We’re evaluating every kick.

“The media doesn’t see the other 10 or 20 kicks that they do per day on the other field. They’re being charted, too. I’m not going to tell you what they are. But if people actually knew how Roberto was doing over there, they wouldn’t have taken the Day One report from the skinny posts like they did and made such a big deal of it. But they can only report what they see and I understand that.”

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Clearly this means the competition is closer than what the early media reports would indicate, right?

“Roberto is actually getting better, and we’re excited that he actually has progressed from where he was from last year,” said Licht in his best politician imitation.

To say Aguayo has nowhere to go but up would be unfair, but he was objectively bad last year. He was 22 of 31 on field goals in his rookie season (that 71% success rate landed the Bucs in dead last in the league) with a long of just 43 yards, while missing seven of his 11 attempts from 40-plus. He also missed two extra points.

His saving grace was how high he was picked (No. 59 overall), and his game-winning kick at the end of regulation to beat the Panthers on Monday Night Football, which gave everyone in Tampa Bay something to feel good about.

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But there can only be one kicker on this roster, and Licht is dreading that decision. Well, not necessarily the decision as much as how it will be broadcast to every HBO subscriber in a few months.

“Besides seeing myself on camera… I’m not looking forward to cutting players on tape,” Licht said when I asked him what he’ll least like about having Hard Knocks at camp. “That’s one thing that I think about a lot. It’s a moment that you’re taking the air out of their balloon and crushing their dream in some cases. They shouldn’t look at it that way because there are a lot of instances where guys [come back] … But cutting players in that intimate moment would be it.”

Other observations from Bucs’ OTAs

• It’s an off-season cliché that each player is in the best shape of his life, but that definitely seems to be the case for Jameis Winston. He was pudgy in pre-draft workouts and slimmed down last off-season, and this spring he looks trimmer. He joked that he’s up to four abs now and is weighing in at 235 pounds, which is where he wants to be at the end of July. “I want to be heavy going into training camp because I’m going to lose that [by sweating],” Winston said.

• Third-year offensive lineman Ali Marpet is already feeling more comfortable at his new center position after playing his first two seasons at guard. Marpet came to Tampa Bay knowing he could eventually slide inside, and the Bucs are making that transition this off-season. “[The cohesion] has improved a lot in a short amount of time,” Marpet said. “Obviously we’re not where we need to be, but where we are at six days or whatever is pretty darn good.” He did have one false start where he moved the ball while the rest of the O-line remained in their stance. I offered him the chance to blame the blaring music covering up Winston’s cadence, but he took full blame instead.

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• Early reports out of Tampa Bay said Doug Martin appeared to have slimmed down, and they were true. The former 1,500-yard rusher looked lean Thursday when he caught a Winston pass on a wheel route early in the day. Martin, who’s suspended for the first three games of 2017 after violating the league’s PED policy, declined to identify for the drug he tested positive for or how long he was in rehab but stated he’s much stronger physically and mentally. “He’s on our football team,” Licht told SI.com. “He’s doing everything that he’s supposed to be doing. He looks great. We’re just taking it one day at a time right now.”

• I’ve long been picking the Bucs to win the NFC South in 2017, but I was surprised Thursday when I learned of two stats about this team. Tampa Bay hasn’t had a pass-rusher with at least 10 sacks since ’05. I believe that ends this year with the likes of Gerald McCoy, Robert Ayers and Noah Spence on their roster. I also didn’t realize the Bucs’ defense ranked third in the league in takeaways with 29 (Kansas City had 33 and Oakland had 30). I like their young defense, and I especially like their front seven, but that’s a high bar to reach again in ’17.

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