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Monday Morning QB: Bucs GM Jason Licht ‘Owning Up’ to Roberto Aguayo Mistake

After Tampa Bay cut the kicker it traded up to draft, the man behind the decision reflects on the disappointment: ‘We’ve ripped off the band-aid ... and we’re moving forward.’

ATLANTA — So many stories on the NFL training camp trip. One actually happened on the phone in my hotel room, late Saturday afternoon. Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht, internet punching bag du jour, sounded defeated.

“How do you feel?” I said to Licht, half a day after he cut Roberto Aguayo, the kicker he traded up to draft in the second round just 16 months ago.

“You never feel good when you shatter someone’s dream,” Licht said. “That is always tough, especially someone you had such high hopes for. You don’t have good feelings about that. It is a little bit of a sense of, I don’t want to say relief, but we’ve ripped off the band-aid, and we move on. We’re moving forward.”

Huge news dump late in the week: Ezekiel Elliott suspended six games for domestic violence, the Rams trading for the disappointing Sammy Watkins, the Bills making moves to own the 2018 draft, and the Saturday whopper: the sacking, after one lousy preseason game, of one of the most controversial draft picks in recent history. And the Sunday post-script: The Bears claimed Aguayo and will try to resuscitate his career.

Roberto Aguayo, after Friday’s game: ‘Sometimes you are going to do good, sometimes you are going to do bad, but at the end of the day, you can’t let it defeat you.’

Roberto Aguayo, after Friday’s game: ‘Sometimes you are going to do good, sometimes you are going to do bad, but at the end of the day, you can’t let it defeat you.’

“It's officially the worst draft pick in NFL history,” ESPN’s Trey Wingo tweeted Saturday. Quite an over-the-top take about the 59th overall pick in 2016, and seeing that the NFL has held 82 drafts. But Wingo had company over the weekend. Licht got avalanched for dealing third-round and fourth-round picks in 2016 to move into the second round to draft a kicker. He, and the world, watched Aguayo turn into football’s Rick Ankiel before our eyes. Just as phenom pitcher Ankiel couldn’t find home plate for the St. Louis Cardinals 16 years ago, Aguayo was the kicker who internalized the pressure, tried to please everybody and, apparently, just blew a mental fuse.

Friday night in Cincinnati, Aguayo boinked a PAT off the right upright, and shanked a 44-yard field-goal try. The kicker entered this year with Nick Folk as competition and had close to zero room for error. After the game, Licht and coach Dirk Koetter talked about it, and the GM said: “Let me sleep on it,” Licht said. When he woke up Saturday morning, Licht knew Tampa Bay had to get off the kicker-go-round. With HBO’s “Hard Knocks” in the house Saturday morning—I’m told NFL Films got the whole scene and will show some of it Tuesday night at 10 p.m. ET—Aguayo was released.

Hours later, his reputation punched in the jaw, Licht faced the music.

“I’m owning up to it,” he said quietly. “I’m owning up to it by releasing him. It was a bold move and it didn’t work out. I don’t know what else to say. I know I have the support of my coach and my ownership.

“At the time, I was bound and determined to get the best kicker we possibly could. I thought Roberto had the chance to be a special kicker in the league for a long time. That’s a position that had been a rough spot for us. What did I learn from this? I’ve said this before, but when we took him, we essentially anointed him. If I could do it again, I would have gone back and brought in competition to challenge him. I look back on that a lot. Roberto is a great kid, but the magnitude of that position, and the pressure on a 21-year-old—his performance is affecting the lives of men who have families to support. That got tough.”

When we spoke, I got the impression—through his words and his tone—that he didn’t want the Aguayo pick to make him gun-shy. This is a flame-out, and a big one. Using the 74th and 106th picks to trade up for a kicker who’d been just 71-percent accurate from beyond 40 yards in college. The 74th and 106th picks are team-builders. Licht used the 61st and 124th one year earlier on a couple of players (Ali Marpet, Kwon Alexander) who should be Bucs cornerstones for a while.

“Look, I want to digest this for a while,” Licht said. “But this is not going to make me afraid of making bold moves. You can’t make decisions, or not make them, based on fear. I will say that you have to learn from things that didn’t work out. Whatever that is in this case, we’ll figure it out.”

Roberto Aguayo, a Second-Round Kicker Who Couldn’t Cut It

Here’s what it is: You should take only an extraordinary kicker in the second round, a generational kicker. And Aguayo, fairly average on the long college kicks, hadn’t proven himself to be one at Florida State. He also hadn’t kicked in an unusually high number of high-stress situations with games on the line—which is what NFL kickers have to do eight or 10 times a year. It’s good to be bold, but not for bold’s sake.

But bigger names than Licht have made worse picks, as it turned out. Hall of Famer Al Davis chose JaMarcus Russell first overall in 2007. Bobby Beathard, up for the Hall this year, picked Ryan Leaf second overall in 1998. Licht is right: He can’t allow the Aguayo mega-mistake to make him skittish on future draft days.

“I gotta snap [out of it],” Licht said. With the opener four weeks away, he’s got no choice.

On the Ezekiel Elliott Decision

In his statement after the suspension was handed down, Ezekiel Elliott said he ‘strongly disagreed’ with the decision and admitted he was ‘far from perfect.’

In his statement after the suspension was handed down, Ezekiel Elliott said he ‘strongly disagreed’ with the decision and admitted he was ‘far from perfect.’

The NFL gave Baltimore running back Ray Rice a two-game ban initially; howls of protest. The NFL gave Giants kicker Josh Brown a one-game ban; howls of protest. The NFL draws a line and says “a baseline suspension of six games” for league employees found to have engaged in domestic violence. Then the NFL gives Ezekiel Elliott a six-game ban. It’s stunning, and Elliott will fight it, but it’s not unexpected. This is what America, and the owners, wanted: action on domestic violence. Maybe not the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, but the other owners do. They want domestic abuse punished, and significantly.

This story can go so many ways … but the first thing I thought of when I heard about the Elliott ban was the future of Roger Goodell. In his first 11 years as commissioner, Goodell has had—in my estimation—five major influential owners as the cornerstones of his power base: Pittsburgh’s Dan Rooney, Carolina’s Jerry Richardson, Jerry Jones of Dallas, Robert Kraft of New England, and the Giants’ John Mara. Rooney died this year. Richardson, 81, has declining influence. Jones, as Adam Schefter reports, is furious with the commissioner for the Elliott suspension, and as I believe, thinks the commissioner is too suspension-happy. Kraft is still wounded over the Brady suspension and verdict. Mara’s still in Goodell’s corner—rock-solid, I believe.

That’s quite a change in the Goodell power base. How much will that factor into Goodell’s long-term future? We’ll see.

Now to the Elliott story. First, the legal expert for Sports IllustratedMichael McCann, gives us a weekend update of where we stand after the league’s suspension of the defending NFL rushing champion.

MMQB: So many are asking: How can the NFL suspend a guy for six games when he was never charged with a crime by investigating authorities in the case?

McCann: The relevant standard is the key. In a court of law, probable cause is required for a criminal charge. In the NFL system of justice, probable cause is not required. The NFL standard for whether someone committed a wrong is up to the discretion of the commissioner, on a case-by-case basis. The authorities have not charged him; the NFL would say that’s irrelevant. They would say the reputation of the league is at stake, and the commitment to curbing domestic violence … Without having seen the evidence, it’s hard to draw the conclusion that the league [made the correct ruling]. The key question is what’s the guiding force for the NFL here? Is it a PR strategy? Does the league want to appear tough in the wake of Ray Rice and Josh Brown? That said, the panel that Roger Goodell used is very credible; they are authoritative voices. We have reason to believe that outside experts of that caliber would be committed to make the right decision.

MMQB: The league points to significant forensic evidence in suspending Elliott. Did the local authorities not have that evidence?

McCann: It’s a little hard to think a private company that does not have subpoena power would be able to obtain more evidence and better evidence than law enforcement. That said, the NFL may have the capacity to get people to talk—people who might be unwilling to talk to law enforcement. They may have access to additional electronic evidence than law enforcement.

MMQB: What’s next?

McCann: It appears Elliott will file an appeal. After an appeal is filed, the NFL would have 10 business days to hold a hearing. I think the appeal will be influenced by whether Elliott expresses contrition. This commissioner has lowered sanctions when players have voiced contrition or said they’ve done something. If there is an appeal that doesn’t have the outcome Elliott wants, he would have the option of filing a federal lawsuit. The NFL will rush to court, to the New York Southern District federal court, most likely. They would have the positive Brady verdict from the Second Circuit there as precedent. So we’ll see.

MMQB: Do you believe it’s most likely Elliott starts the season suspended?

McCann: I think that’s extremely likely—unless his appeal works with Roger Goodell and it’s totally vacated. He would have to get an injunction, and it’s hard to imagine that happening in this case.

Elliott will appeal, of course, and he should if he believes he’s been wronged. We shouldn’t pass judgment until the Elliott team has had its day in the appeals process. But what could the Elliott side have left? I’m reminded of the Saints’ bounty case, when New Orleans owner Tom Benson and coach Sean Payton flew to New York to make their case fervently and with finality before Roger Goodell issued his ruling. It was impassioned, I was told afterward, with Payton, in particular, saying he wasn’t aware of many of the bounty-related charges the NFL felt were solid. Payton threw it all on the table, but Goodell still suspended him for a year. When Elliott and his representatives met with the NFL weeks ago to argue their side, surely they used their most persuasive arguments and evidence. So what’s left now? Elliott must hope there’s something.

As one legal expert told me over the weekend, the Elliott side must hope to be able to poke holes in the NFL “metadata” points, and in the fact that the alleged victim, Tiffany Thompson, had some inconsistencies in her story.

Ezekiel Elliott Suspension: What It Means

Goodell relied on the metadata—quite literally, a collection of data about data—to make this call. In this way: When you take a picture on your smartphone, the photo has a time stamp. But the time stamp, and the location on the photo, can be doctored. What can’t be doctored are the GPS coordinates and the information embedded in the phone that show when and where a photo was taken, and also some information on data (photos, texts) shared by the phone-owner. That’s the metadata discovered by the analysts who looked at Thompson’s phone, and the phones of those with whom she shared her texts and photos. As for the incriminating photos of bruises, the league relied on two medical authorities who established the medical equivalent of time stamps on when the bruises on Thompson occurred. There’s no question that the Elliott side, in its appeals and attempts to make Elliott able to play on opening night, will attack the credibility of the experts attempting to link the time Elliott and Thompson spent together in July 2016 and the bruises she suffered and photographed as proof of his alleged abuse.

If you think an appeal is open-and-shut in the league’s favor, don’t. The Greg Hardy 10-game domestic-assault ban was reduced to four games in 2015. So let’s give Elliott his due process. The league has fumbled frequently in the domestic-violence arena, so make no predictions here. But the Cowboys have good running back depth (Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris), and I’m not buying the gloom and doom predictions if Elliott misses six games.

Let’s give Elliott his fair chance to prove his innocence. If he can’t, let’s acknowledge the fact the NFL had a major problem in image and morality and moved to address it, and did exactly what it said it would do.

Trades Like This? In August?

Sammy Watkins averaged 16.1 yards per catch during his three seasons with the Bills.

Sammy Watkins averaged 16.1 yards per catch during his three seasons with the Bills.

“We researched trades at this time of year,” Buffalo general manager Brandon Beane said Sunday afternoon, “and there’s aren’t many like this.” Trades for picks, the Bills’ GM meant. There was Sam Bradford from Philadelphia to Minnesota last year for first- and fourth-round picks, Vontae Davis from Miami to Indy for a second-rounder in 2012, and Greg Olsen from Chicago to Carolina for a third-rounder in 2011 … all in the preseason. Beane did two of them in one day. On Friday he sent wide receiver Sammy Watkins to the Rams for a second-round pick plus cornerback E.J. Gaines; then he traded cornerback Ronald Darby to Philadelphia for a third-round pick plus wide receiver Jordan Matthews.

Everyone would say Darby is a better corner than Gaines, and Watkins is a better wideout than Matthews. I don’t worry about the Darby deal for Buffalo, because he hadn’t bought into the new administration of Beane and head coach Sean McDermott, and because he wasn’t a great scheme fit for McDermott’s zone coverage. Buffalo did get a gutty, durable (Matthews played 46 of 48 games in three NFL seasons) possession receiver who will take Watkins’ spot in the Bills’ offense. The Watkins deal could hurt in the long run, for two reasons. He’s healthy this year after being plagued by a nagging foot injury. And the veterans on the Bills loved him, and won’t be happy with this deal. I can’t imagine LeSean McCoy singing kumbaya over this trade for the future. He wants to win now.

The reality of this situation, though, is that the Bills are not going to win now, even if Darby and Watkins had been playing great. Playing for 2018 is smarter. And Buffalo also had to worry about Watkins and the cap. Because the team didn’t exercise the fifth-year option for Watkins, ensuring that he’d be a free agent after this season, Beane would have had to try to sign Watkins late this season (when the team has just $8.1 million remaining under the cap) or likely face franchising him next spring. So they risked Watkins playing great this year and looking dumb for letting him go … or trading him now for real value. A pick around number 40 or 45 in 2018 appealed more to Beane.

Interestingly, Beane didn’t tell McDermott about his tentative deal with the Rams before their game against Minnesota. Imagine the Rams’ shock when, on the first four plays of the game on offense for Buffalo, Tyrod Taylor threw to Watkins. Beane wanted McDermott, in his first game as coach, not to be shackled but rather to be able to use his 90 players the way he saw fit. They didn’t discuss the chance for the trade until after the game.

Sammy Watkins Gets a Fresh Start in L.A., as the Bills Tear It All Down

The trades leave Buffalo and Cleveland with a league-high six picks in the first three rounds next year. “The onus is on me and my staff,” Beane said on Sunday. “We have to draft well. We’ve taken the first step—accumulating high picks.”

Interestingly, Beane said: “If this was baseball, we’d probably have kept Sammy, because we wouldn’t have had the cap to worry about. But every decision you make in football, with the cap, is a calculated risk. We had four inquiries for Sammy, and three offers, and got to a point where the Rams were willing to give a high pick, and we thought it was the best thing for us.”

The Rams, with speed threat Tavon Austin idled by a hamstring injury, now could have a three-man starting receiver set of all new guys: vets Robert Woods and Watkins, and rookie Cooper Kupp. With the uncertainty surrounding 2016 top overall pick Jared Goff, it’s hard to envision Watkins putting up premier-receiver numbers. So the Bills may not look bad. But at some point they’ve got to start keeping their top picks. That’s a big reason why Buffalo hasn’t been in the playoffs in 17 years. 

The Bills Have to Stop Blowing Up Their Team

Former Bills first-round pick E.J. Manuel is now a backup for the Raiders. Manuel started 17 games over four seasons in Buffalo and went 6-11.

Former Bills first-round pick E.J. Manuel is now a backup for the Raiders. Manuel started 17 games over four seasons in Buffalo and went 6-11.

First thing I thought Friday when I saw Beane had traded Watkins and Darby: Owners Terry and Kim Pegula have to mentally commit to Beane and McDermott for the next five years. Period. The mayhem in Buffalo must stop.

• Five general managers in the past decade. GMs of the Bills since 2007: Marv Levy (2007), Russ Brandon (2008-09), Buddy Nix (2010-12), Doug Whaley (2013-17), Brandon Beane (current).

• Six coaches in the past decade. Coaches of the Bills since 2007: Dick Jauron (2007-09), Perry Fewell (2009), Chan Gailey (2010-12), Doug Marrone (2013-14), Rex Ryan (2015-16), Sean McDermott (present).

Of the 20 players Buffalo chose in the top four rounds between 2012 and 2016, only six remain on the team—and a couple of those could be on the chopping block on cutdown weekend. The three solid players that remain from the top of the five drafts between 2012 and 2016: defensive end Shaq Lawson (though still unproven because of injury), guard John Miller and tackle Cordy Glenn. Three of 20. That’s a .150 batting average. That’s absolutely awful.