The recent NFL Draft was memorable for only one quarterback going in the top-70, for a record run on receivers, for Chula Vista’s Devin Lloyd hoisting Roger Goodell two feet above the Las Vegas stage on Draft Night.
Saturday, there was punter intrigue, and it featured a San Diegan in Matt Araiza.
About the “Punt God,” a number of NFL teams were less dazzled than outsiders who saw the San Diego State’s left-footed, sonic-boom punts and concluded there’d be a scramble for his services.
It was another punter, Penn State’s Jordan Stout, who was drafted first. And, his new team implied there wasn’t a close second.
“Stout was the only one we would have drafted,” Baltimore Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta told NBC’s Peter King after making the fourth-round selection.
Three picks later, a second punter was chosen.
Jake Camarda went from Georgia’s national-championship winner to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Believing in Araiza, the Buffalo Bills took him with the first pick in the sixth round.
For most decorated college punters, it was a major accomplishment. But Araiza didn’t become an All-America and the 2021 Ray Guy Award winner by skirting competition.
He said he’ll draw “a big red circle” on the date of the Bills-Ravens game that comes this season — a comment he made before King’s article was published.
Who knew punter evaluation could be so interesting?
The three punters were all chosen by a smart team.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh is a Super Bowl winner and a former special teams coordinator. The Bills, having reached the past three postseasons, are the AFC’s Super Bowl favorite on many betting lines. The Bucs won the Super Bowl just 15 months ago.
Before the draft, Araiza’s power seemed to give him a leg up.
The fourth-year junior set an NCAA record last year with 36 punts of 50-plus yards. Seventeen of his punts went at least 60 yards. Two traveled at least 80 yards.
So, what made him a bronze medalist Saturday? What put 50 slots between him and Stout?
Superior hang time and better directional punting were in Stout’s favor. Checking off a third box, Stout had held for kicks in games, where Araiza had no game experience because he was the Aztecs’ full-time kicker.
The Buffalo News reported that, per stats kept by Greg Hart and posted at phillycovercorner.com, Araiza’s average hang time was just 3.92 seconds, which trailed Stout and Camarda. Additionally, Araiza placed 37 percent of his punts in short-field situations into the end zone for touchbacks — a number that will need to come way down.
No punter entering the NFL is a finished product. Araiza said he’ll make refinements.
“Every aspect of the pro level, I need to continue to work on,” he told reporters in New York. “I’m by no means a complete player yet, but I’m excited to get into the building and work with the staff and work with the other teams and get ready to just help the team as much as we can on special teams.”
The NFL is a faster game for punters, too. Against a quick rush, a punter may have only 1.1 or 1.2 seconds to boot the ball after it hits his hands, said Kevin Spencer, a former NFL special teams coach who worked under Bill Belichick and won a Super Bowl with the Steelers. Spencer, who hasn’t studied Araiza, said the NFL’s speed can expose a punter’s flaws.
“Sometimes, college kids might go a tad slow,” he said Tuesday. “What happens when you speed up is, that’s when you have technical errors. You have to go fast all the time. You have to hone in that technique. You can’t go slow now and speed up, or it usually goes to hell in a hand basket.”
In Bob McGinn’s predraft poll of NFL scouts and executives for GolongTD.com, Araiza drew varied opinions.
“He’s got a great gross average (51.19) but he’s pretty inconsistent,” said one scout. “He’s certainly more of a line-drive guy … but, he had a really good combine and a really good pro day.” Said a special teams coordinator: “Very talented. Big-time leg. Raw, very raw.” Said an AFC scout: “He has the strongest leg. He’s a three-step guy. He outkicks his coverage a lot of the time.”
Araiza’s lack of game experience at holding was deemed significant, but not necessarily daunting. Araiza has been holding for Seahawks kicker Jason Myers (Chula Vista Mater Dei) in local workouts under former NFL kicker Nick Novak.
Araiza isn’t the only San Diego State athlete of recent years whose explosive performances drew national attention. Stephen Strasburg’s fastballs and sliders propelled him to the first slot of MLB’s 2009 draft, rewarding the Washington Nationals’ tanking strategy. Injuries sidetracked Strasburg early in his MLB career, but the Santee West Hills alum overcame them and won World Series MVP honors in 2019.
Now comes an ex-Aztec who’ll try to punt the Bills toward their first Lombardi Trophy.