One of the most exciting prospects in the 2022 NFL Draft is San Diego State University’s Matt Araiza. The 21-year-old is a special teams star who won the 2021 Ray Guy Award, given to the best punter in college football. He is exceptional on fourth down, averaging 51.2 yards per punt in his most recent season. This is the most yards per punt a player has ever averaged in a single NCAA season, illustrating his sheer dominance.
Araiza has a cannon for a leg, shown with his 86-yard punt against San Jose State in October. Yes, that’s right – Araiza truly flipped the field for the Aztecs, changing the line-of-scrimmage from their own 11-yard-line to the 3-yard-line of the Spartans.
But, that’s not all Araiza can do. The San Diego, California native has a career kicking percentage of over 73% as the Aztecs’ kicker. He converted all but one of his 97 career extra-point attempts, too. An all-around special teams contributor, the 2021 unanimous All-American had kickoff duties for San Diego State.
According to PFF, Araiza had the eighth-lowest kickoff return percentage in the country at less than 15%. This versatility only adds to his value heading into the NFL Draft since he can be the kickoff specialist as well as fill in as an emergency kicker should the starter suffer an injury during a game.
These traits make for an incredibly impressive athlete, but how would he test at the NFL Combine? Araiza knocked it out of the park, posting numbers comparable to some highly ranked prospects. His broad jump of 10’ 1” was better than many who are projected to be high draft selections, including Aidan Hutchinson, David Bell, Isaiah Spiller, Brian Robinson Jr., and Trey McBride. His 32” vertical jump was the same as Chris Olave, our 15th-highest-ranked prospect. Although the 40-yard-dash may not be a direct indicator of a player’s game speed, the fact that Araiza ran a 4.68 is notable in its own right.
From the aforementioned information, it appears that Araiza is an elite punting prospect. But how have other drafted punters panned out in the NFL? Above is a plot of the average Approximate Value (AV) of a punter per season who has been drafted in the last 15 seasons. The number of seasons for each punter includes every season where at least half of a season was played.
Using AV from Pro-Football-Reference, this somewhat normalizes the impact of a punter on his team. In this graphic, there appears to be nearly no association between where a player was selected and his average AV per season. The relationship is not close to being statistically significant here, and the R-squared value is almost negligible.
Additionally, few of these punters have been widely recognized as the best at their position, even for one season. Of the 27 punters drafted in the past 15 seasons, just six of these players have made a Pro Bowl – these six punters only made one Pro Bowl each.
For context, two Pro Bowl punters are named each year, leaving about an 20% clip of the Pro Bowl punters in the last 15 seasons being players who were drafted. Although it is important to recognize that some of these punters have not had as many seasons as others they’ve competed against, some believe a player like Araiza should be one of the top NFL punters immediately upon entering the league.
This begs the question: how well will Matt Araiza transition to the NFL? Coach Marwan Maalouf, currently coaching special teams at the University of Miami and longtime NFL special teams coach, thinks highly of Araiza. “He’s a talented guy who should help with winning the field position category.”
However, just like any other special teams prospect, Coach Maalouf believes the San Diego State product should be worked out by coaches. “Every coach will want to do their due diligence as far as timing his touch to toe operation and seeing how he does with a real NFL Duke ball. If he passes those criteria while you’re working him out and he hits the Duke well, able to turn the ball over, then yes, you check off the boxes.”
Once a special teams coach feels comfortable with Araiza’s ability, the coach may want to suggest the rest of the front office look into acquiring him in the draft. As mentioned before, Araiza is incredibly versatile and can help the special teams unit in an impactful way. Not only has he shown his prowess as a punter, but Coach Maalouf adds “he kicked off as well and was good at it. So that builds his value to your team especially if you have an older kicker who now you can take the kickoff duty from.”
Now for the burning question: where will Araiza be drafted in April? Former Eagles President and Browns CEO Joe Banner gave his take on how he would approach this unique prospect.
Punters Drafted Since the 2007 NFL Draft
“Personally, I would not draft a punter, regardless of how good he is, until the 7th-round – the 6th-round at the earliest. If I can get my punter as an UDFA instead of using a draft selection on him, that would be preferable.”
Banner’s rationale is driven by the notion of replacement value. He believes it is worth taking chances on other positions earlier in the draft rather than a punter.
“I recognize that my train of thought may be different from the rest of the league. I would rather draft depth at other positions, such as defensive back and linebacker, where the players can develop while contributing on special teams.”
Although drafting a punter often indicates this player will be the unquestioned starter, the position simply is not at a premium where the best at the position and an average player are not too far apart from one another.
“If I’m punting five to seven times per game and the disparity in average yards is just a few, this doesn’t translate to that significant of a difference overall. Also, a higher average yards per punt does not always mean better – sometimes you want to directionally punt, so this can be misleading. This reinforces the significance of gross versus net punting averages. Based on net punting averages, you can usually find UDFAs who will rank above average at the position in directional punting and hang time.”
Every front office in the NFL may have Araiza at a different spot on their boards come the last week in April, but the standout college special teams player should hear his name called during the 2022 NFL Draft. Given the recent trends of where punters have been drafted, it would make sense for Araiza to be selected on Day 3 since only Bryan Anger has been taken before then in the past 15 years.
Now time for my prediction: I believe Matt Araiza will be selected in the later portion of Round 4, or in Round 5 of the 2022 NFL Draft.