FanPost

2022 NFL Draft: The Best Punter Prospect Ever?

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

On the Rise

The Rams don't have any early round draft picks this year. With so little draft capital, the Rams might only be able to focus on tinkering with the edges of the roster. Sure, it is possible to find draft sleepers in the 4th to 6th round range, but that's easier said than done.

One potential roster decision that could be tied to the team's draft plans is whether the Rams will retain veteran punter Johnny Hekker. In my opinion, Hekker had a better season than he's given credit for (he finished 4th in the NFL in net punting average and notwithstanding his error holding on a PAT in the Super Bowl, he was a generally reliable holder on kicks.) On the other hand, Hekker only has about a $1.1 million dead cap number compared to his scheduled $3.2 million cap hit. Waiving or trading Hekker could be a way for the Rams to create a bit more cap space. That move only makes sense if the Rams can find a cheap replacement for Hekker. Are there any punters in the draft this year worth selecting or prioritizing as UDFAs (remember that Hekker is a former UDFA)?

The consensus top ranked punter in this year's draft is Matt Araiza (pronounced "ah-RISE-ah") from San Diego State. Araiza set the record for the best ever punting average in FBS history with a 51.19 yard average. His long ball booming punts wowed the crowd like Mark McGwire home run bombs and made Araiza a social media sensation. Is Araiza destined to be the next great NFL punter? Is he as good as Bryan Anger, who was famously drafted earlier than Russell Wilson in the 3rd round? Should the Rams be interested in Araiza? If so, how early is too early to draft a punter? Is Araiza overrated and too risky of an option compared with sticking with Hekker?

Drafting the right punter can pay dividends for a team. The Rams just played against one example in the Super Bowl. The Bengals drafted Kevin Huber in the 5th round of the 2009 draft. Huber has spent his entire career with the Bengals and is their holder for kicks. In the early years of his pro career, Huber was below average in gross punting, but he improved over time, becoming one of the better punters in the league. He has 6 seasons with a punting average of at least 46 yards (Hekker has 7 such years). Huber went to the Pro Bowl for the 2014 season after finishing 5th in punting average that season. In 2020, Huber was 7th in punting average with a career best 47.2 yards. He was 35 years old that year. Huber wasn't the only good punter in that draft class. Thomas Morstead (5th rd) and Pat McAfee (7th rd) both also turned out to be very good NFL punters. Since most late round picks don't produce productive players, converting one into a Pro Bowl level punter is generally very good return on investment.

Background

Name: Matt Araiza

College: San Diego State

Age: Turns 22 in May. Redshirt Junior.

Size: Listed as 6'2'' tall, 200 pounds

Left footed. From San Diego. Former soccer player who started playing football in high school. Dad was born in Mexico. Computer science major. Punter and kicker in high school, 43.9 punt average as HS senior. Played soccer and was hurler on track team in HS.

Won Ray Guy Award for 2021 season as nation's top punter. First football player from San Diego State to ever win an individual national award, due to Marshall Faulk being robbed of both the Heisman and Doak Walker awards during his college career.

Only season as full time punter was 2021. As redshirt freshman in 2019 he was 22 for 26 on FG attempts, with a long of 48 yards. On kickoffs, he was 6th in FBS in touchback percentage.

In 2020 he made 10 out of 14 FGs and punted 5 times with a 49.8 yard average.

In 2021, he was 18 out of 28 on FGs with a long of 53. He had 79 punts with a 51.2 yard average. In addition to the punting average record, he also set FBS records for the most 50+ yard punts with 39 (smashing the previous record of 32), the most 60+ yard punts with 18. He had 6 punts of 70+ yards and two punts of over 80 yards.

The previous record holder for punting average was Braden Mann, who was a 6th round draft pick by the Jets in 2020. When the Jets beat the Rams in 2020, Mann made a critical open field tackle on Nsimba Webster with about 5 and a half minutes left in the 4th quarter to preserve the Jets' lead. Mann in 2 seasons has been middle of the pack in both gross and net punting average.

Araiza's 2021 punting average is over 8 yards better than Hekker's 44.0 yard average his senior year playing at Oregon State. Nicknames include "The Anomaly" and "Punt God".

Says he models his game after and studies Jake Bailey, the punter for the New England Patriots. Bailey was a 5th round pick in 2019 and was 8th in punting average last season at 47.3 yards (but only 20th in net punting average).

Early draft board rankings generally have Araiza in about the 5th to 6th round range.

CBSSports 151st overall prospect (only punter on board), the draft slot would have been early 5th round last year

Sports Illustrated's top punter on board

Drafttek's top punter, 137th overall (about late 4th round)

Draft Countdown (Shane Hallan) 199th overall (6th round), (Brian Bosarse) 153rd overall (early 5th round)

ProFootballNetwork (Oliver Hodgkinson) profile says that he should be drafted.

Strengths

Aggressive and physical mentality of a defensive back when covering punts. Will mix it up with opponents and trash talk on the field. Made 3 solo tackles and 6 total tackles last season. On one punt, the returner ran down the sideline and was out of bounds with 2 feet in the white when Araiza came running in from the side and delivered a heavy shoulder charge up high, hitting the returner on the side of the shoulder pads and knocking him hard, drawing a late hit penalty. Will run fast down the field to try to help cover punts. Not a big or strong player, but not afraid of contact. Needs to work on keeping emotions in check.

Generates tremendous kicking power with dynamic hip rotation on punts. Excellent touchback percentage on kickoffs, should be able to KO in the NFL. Career 79.7% touchback percentage over 3 seasons. Zero kickoffs went out of bounds in career. Was 5th in FBS in kickoff average last season at 64.7 yards. Was 6th in FBS in kickoff average in 2020 at 64.3 yards. Matt Gay for the Rams last year had a 63.7% TB rate and has a 67.4% career rate.

Left footed punters are preferred by some coaches (primarily Bill Belichick). The Pats have had multiple left footed punters over the years. One lesser know example of this string of LF Pats punters is Zoltan Mesko, who was a 5th round pick in 2010 and spent 3 seasons with the team. Some people think the different spin on the ball from a left footed punter can make it difficult for the returner to track and field the punt.

Had punt fly 75 yards in the air from the line of scrimmage against Air Force, bounce on the opponent's 15, immediately check up and hit on the 19, then roll forward to the 12 where it was downed. The LOS was his own 10 and he fielded the snap in the end zone. Higher number of touchbacks partly due to his unconventional approach. Instead of going for more hang time, Araiza suggests that it is better to hit line drives into the end zone. Standing on his own goalline for another punt, the ball hit around the 30 then skipped forward where it was downed on the opponent's 4 yard line. Standing on own 12, punt bounced somewhere inside opponent's 20 and went into the end zone for a touchback.

Limited range as FG kicker, but enough ability to serve as emergency injury replacement as kicker if needed.

He's good enough at KO that it is possible a team could carry him on the roster as a rookie purely as a KO specialist and still retain a different punter. This would burn an additional roster spot, but it would give the team more flexibility and options.

Weaknesses

Punts out of college spread formation with 3 personal protectors in front of him sliding door blocking. Typically no attempt by opponents to block the punt.

Footwork and steps only applicable to college football and will need to be adjusted for NFL game. A pro punter typically uses a 3 step approach. There is a short gather step as the punter catches the snap, followed by 2 longer strides, culminating in the punter striking the ball approximately 3.5 yards from his starting position and about 10.5 yards from the LOS. An NFL punter stands relatively stationary as he receives the snap and needs to launch the ball at a steep angle to prevent the punt from being blocked. It is relatively common for there to be close calls in the NFL where the opponent almost blocks the punt, but the punter is barely able to get the ball over or around the hands of the rusher to get the punt away.

Araiza's footwork is far too slow and inconsistent compared to the NFL procedure. Araiza will take 1 to 3 "gather steps" (appears to depend on the accuracy of the snap), followed by 3 longer "ramp up" steps before he strikes the ball. In other words, he has a 4 step approach (which sometimes becomes a 5 step approach). In addition, Araiza sometimes crouches forward as he receives the snap (like a RB getting a handoff from the QB) to try to get his body momentum going forward. By the time his left foot strikes the ball, the contact point is only about 9.5 to 9 yards behind the LOS, which is 1 to 1.5 yards further upfield from an NFL punter. Furthermore, his launch angle is lower, more of a line drive, which fails to get the ball up and over the rushers as quickly. In college this wasn't an issue, because of differences in formation and strategy, but in the NFL this is potentially a big issue. Instead of "near missed" punt blocks, if Araiza didn't make any changes, he'd be kicking balls into the chest of opponents. On one of his blocked punts, the opponent tried to rush against the 3 personal protectors and Araiza ended up punting the ball squarely into the back of one of his blockers. He simply wont' have as much time or space to work with in the NFL compared to punting in college and must figure out how to get the ball up and out of there quicker.

In theory, Araiza can just learn to adjust his steps just like a CB has to learn not to make contact with the WR downfield or an OT has to learn different footwork in pass blocking sets compared to college. In my opinion, however, this creates an element of risk in projecting Araiza as a draft prospect. Even if he learns the NFL style of punting, will he still have the same effective leg strength as he did in college? Or will the shorter steps and different launch angle cause his punting average to dramatically decline? Will the timing of his punts get messed up, leading to some shanks as he tries to adjust to a different style of punting?

If Araiza needs time to work on his technique and get consistent and comfortable with it, he might a year on the PS (or just working with a private coach on his own) before he's ready for the show. This impacts his draft grade, because in my opinion it is pointless to draft a punter unless you are almost 100% sure he's going to make the final roster. The position isn't valuable enough to draft someone who is merely competition for a vet, because you could just bring in an unsigned FA or an UDFA and accomplish similar results. I also think that developing Araiza requires his NFL team to have a good special teams coach. If your ST coach has more of a "hands off" approach with the punters and doesn't have experience teaching punting mechanics, you'd have to trust Araiza to improve on his own, either by learning himself or through private coaching.

Does not demonstrate much directional punting ability or show skill in shaping punts in the air to control the flight of the ball. Veterans like Sam Koch and Hekker have revolutionized punting in the NFL. They can trick the returner into thinking the ball will go in one direction, but bend the punt to go the opposite way. They can influence what part of the ball is likely to bounce first to try to get the ball to check up inside the 20 or bounce sideways out of bounds. They can cause the ball to wobble in the air like a knuckleball or volleyball floater serve to make it difficult to field cleanly, increasing the odds of a muffed punt. For the most part, Araiza can only do one thing well. He just hammers the ball straight as hard as he can and as far as he can. This might be fine for college, but it doesn't fit the modern trend of NFL punting. He played at elevation in some games in the Mountain West conference and won't benefit from as friendly atmospheric conditions in the NFL unless he plays for the Denver Broncos.

Only 5.1% of Hekker's punts in the NFL have resulted in touchbacks. A whopping 17.9% of Araiza's college punts resulted in touchbacks. Only 20.2% of Araiza's punts were fair caught. Nearly 50% of Hekker's punts last year were fair caught.

College returners allowed punts to go over their head or bounce in front of them, helping boost Araiza's stats. NFL returners less likely to have as many issues tracking the ball, especially if Araiza is forced to adjust to higher ball flight in air.

Only 50% (5 out of 10) on FGs from 40 to 49 yards over last 2 seasons. Did not make a single FG over 50 yards until last year, 3 out of 10 from that range for career. Longest make is only 53. Attempted 57 yard FG and it was a low line drive that fell short of the upright. Not enough ability and range to be regular FG kicker in NFL.

Being the FG kicker in college means that he has no experience being the holder for FGs. This is a negative, because the punter is often the holder in the NFL for kicks.

Araiza's gross punting average is misleading, because his net average was about the same as Hekker's net average last year punting in the NFL. Araiza created viral video highlight punts that garnered attention and praise, but when you break down his actual punting productivity on a net basis, his season isn't really as impressive as it seems at first blush.

Pro Comparison and Grade

Matt Dodge (7th round NYG 2010, East Carolina); 6th round grade

Dodge was 2nd in the country in punting average his final season in college. He did not hold on kicks in college. He was considered a physical tackler for a punter. In his rookie and only season in the NFL, he placed in the top 10 in punting average, but struggled with consistency and hang time. He is most famous for the "Miracle at the Meadowlands II" play against the Eagles where their improbable comeback win over the Giants was capped by Dodge failing to punt the ball out of bounds, opening the door for DJax to scoop the ball up and weave his way to the end zone for the winning TD as time expired, causing an irate Tom Coughlin to chew out Dodge on the field. Dodge failed to make the squad the following season and his NFL career was over.

I feel that Drew Kaser (6th round 2016 Chargers, Texas A&M) was a better draft prospect compared to Araiza. Kaser had a 47.5 punting average his final season in college. Kaser averaged over 48 yards per punt in 2017 and 2018 for the Chargers, but was waived in the middle of the 2018 season, reportedly primarily due to issues as the holder for FGs. At that time, the Chargers were missing a bunch of FGs. There was also a game during Kaser's rookie season where they lined up for a potential game tying chip shot FG with 2 minutes left in the 4th quarter, but the snap went through Kaser's hands. Another contributing factor to Kaser being dumped was a blocked punt against the Rams. Standing in his own end zone, Kaser took a 3 step approach and kicked the ball directly into Littleton's chest. The smothered punt resulted in a TD for the Rams. The head coach blamed Kaser, saying that the punter needed to take a 1 step approach when backed up and was at fault for using 3 steps. As discussed above, Araiza will take 4 to 5 steps even inside his own end zone, because there is often no block rush in college. Can Araiza punt from his own end zone in the NFL only taking 1 step and how far will the ball go if he does this?

Kaser wasn't cut due to his punts not going a long distance. A gross average of 48 yards is fantastic. In 2018, Kaser's punting average would have been 2nd in the NFL if he had remained on the roster. After getting cut by the Chargers, Kaser bounced around on several teams looking for a 2nd opportunity, but never caught on and he's currently a street free agent. The Packers were one of the teams who gave him a look, so if they thought he could do the job they could have kept him instead of trading with the Rams for a punter.

Kaser's career illustrates how the job of being an NFL punter isn't as easy as it appears and how it requires more than just a strong leg to stick around.

Araiza has rare talent with his incredible kicking power, which makes him an intriguing prospect with high potential. The lack of polish and nuance in his technique, however, causes him to also have a low floor with bust potential. Punter is a position where reliability and consistency is valued.

To my eye, Araiza is too risky of a pick to make in the middle of the draft. I see him as more of a late round or even an UDFA prospect. Many solid NFL punters were UDFAs. AJ Cole led the NFL in punting average last season and was an UDFA in 2019. Only a select few punters are truly worth drafting and it isn't a slam dunk that Araiza is one of those who merits being picked.