Considering the NFL’s resources and reach, it seems less and less likely the Bills were unware of allegations against Matt Araiza until this week.
Considering the pre-draft hype around Matt Araiza, the “Punt God” of San Diego State, his fall to the No. 180 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft didn’t match up with expectations.
Special teamers often don’t receive the accolades their offensive and defensive counterparts do when it comes to being recognized in the game. After all, famed Raiders punter Ray Guy, widely considered to be the greatest punter of all time, wasn’t inducted until 2014. This was 28 years after he hung up his NFL cleats. Even Steve Tasker, a Bills special teamer who made the Pro Bowl seven times and is the only special teamer to win Pro Bowl MVP, missed out on his final year of eligibility.
But special teams players can have a profound impact on the game, which is what Guy proved when he pinned opposing teams to their end zones and forced them to trudge over the length of the field. Araiza is the one who won the Ray Guy Award, was named the MWC Special Teams Player of the Year, and was voted Unanimous All-American in 2021.
Not only that, but Araiza’s punts were celebrated over social media as fans watched him punt with the full expectation that he would go pro. In October 2021, The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman assured football fans that “The Punter That Was Promised Has Arrived.”
“San Diego State’s Matt Araiza is having the greatest punting season in college football history,” Sherman wrote. “He’s also redefining how valuable punters can really be.”
That is the way Matt Araiza was seen by the majority of the football world until Aug. 25, when the disturbing gang-rape accusations made national headlines and everyone backed away from him. Sherman, who wrote the piece praising Araiza, wants him out of the league immediately.
Media and fans are reeling from a frustrating Deshaun Watson suspension that allows him to continue playing football because “he’s a great football player.” Watson’s fully-guaranteed contract after the Browns said they thoroughly investigated claims against Watson sent a clear message: the Browns did not believe that the NFL would ban Watson for what he did.
Individual teams and the league at large has demonstrated time and again over the years that unless a scandal becomes public, teams may hold off on cutting a problematic, talented player. Roger Goodell didn’t ban Ray Rice for domestic violence until TMZ leaked video evidence, although Janay Rice confirmed that the NFL knew long before. Giants owner John Mara confirmed that the team re-signed kicker Josh Brown after he admitted abusing his wife, and Brown wasn’t fired until the news became public.
Considering the cultural emphasis on winning at any cost — one that has often meant not believing or validating the experiences of women — it seems questionable that the Buffalo Bills, a professional NFL team with extensive wealth and resources at their disposal, utterly failed to do their due diligence and discover that their punter of choice was accused of a violent rape at San Diego State.
What we know about rape accusations against Matt Araiza makes it seem unlikely the Bills didn’t know
Let’s consider how Araiza has been perceived over the past year before these allegations became public.
Before the 2022 NFL Draft, NFL Draft analyst Lance Zierlein projected Araiza to go in the third round. That is an incredibly high projection for a special teams player, as punters and kicker often go in the sixth and seventh rounds if they’re even drafted at all.
Zierlein compared Araiza to Todd Sauerbrun, an NFL punter who enjoyed a 13-year career who made three Pro Bowls, was named First-team All-Pro twice, and was the NFL punting yards leader in 2001 and 2002.
“Araiza possesses elite power and field-flipping ability that could make him the highest-drafted punter since Todd Sauerbrun went 56th overall in 1995,” Zierlein wrote this spring.
Zierlein, one of the NFL’s premier scouts, expected Araiza to make NFL history and be drafted above the 56th pick. Araiza was drafted 124 picks later.
Araiza’s primary flaw in his game is that his kicks could be a little too powerful, thus resulting in wild punts lacking the precise control needed at the professional level. But this aspect of his game didn’t knock his draft stock, at least not with Zierlein.
“Araiza has rare power and should continue to fine-tune his craft with more coaching and experience,” Zierlein wrote. “If he learns to kick with more consistent control, the sky’s the limit.”
When Araiza initially fell in the draft, his uncontrolled kicks seemed a reasonable factor in his precipitous plummet. But the fall starkly contrasts with what analysts like Zierlein know, which is that kick power is usually a workable issue. For what Araiza offered, he was still the most talented prospective punter in almost three decades. Reservations on his capabilities seem unreasonable for NFL teams desperate to strike gold in the draft. Zierlein, and virtually everyone else scouting college players, considered Araiza a sure thing.
Following the draft, CBS Sports reporter John Breech called Araiza’s fall an “NFL Draft shocker“, saying that the fact that the Bills “surprisingly” landed him after two other punters were taken. Not only was it surprising that Araiza went from a historic second-round prospect to a sixth-round afterthought, but two NFL teams preferred other players to college’s best punter in decades.
“College football’s ‘Punt God’ surprisingly wasn’t the first punter taken in this year’s draft,” Breech wrote.
The Baltimore Ravens selected Jordan Stout and the Buccaneers took Jake Camarda. Considering that these teams needed talent at the position enough to draft them above No. 180, it’s curious that neither team selected Araiza.
Breech added further context to this unusual draft order: in 2022, NFL teams were in more need of elite punters than they have been for years. Or, at least, they were willing to draft punters higher than usual.
“You almost never see two punters get taken that early,” Breech wrote. “With Stout going at 130th overall and Camarda going three picks later, this year marked just the third time since 1993 that two punters were taken before the end of the fourth round. The only other times it happened came in 1993 and 2007.”
Breech even said that it was unclear at the time why Araiza fell, but there were several theories at the time. “One theory on why he fell is because he’s never held for extra point or field goals,” he wrote. “One other theory is that teams are afraid Araiza might outkick his coverage in the NFL.”
These theories were all people had at the time to explain his fall, but considering that he was under investigation for a rape accusation for several months, this seems to be the much more likely reason that Araiza fell.
In 2014, Albert Breer detailed the complex processes in which different NFL teams vet prospective players. His article offers insight to a murky landscape: every NFL team is different in their methods, as is every college team. Still, Breer clarified that there are lines that are not crossed.
“Every club has its own lines.
Some of them are common. Most teams take a strong stance against violence toward women. Many have a similar boundary when messing around with drugs crosses into dealing them, or when drug use goes beyond marijuana.
What we know is that, for each club, the lines exist, and that figuring out where a prospect sits with respect to those lines can be a complicated process. But the lines are clear internally, and usually marked by one experience or another.”
According to Breer, most teams will pass on a player with a history of violence against women, and we know the Ravens and the Buccaneers conspicously passed on Araiza.
Araiza’s lawyer, Kerry Armstrong, went on television to discuss the case, vehemently denying the allegations against his client. When asked if the Bills knew about Araiza’s allegations before the draft, Armstrong responded, “You’d better believe it.”
Dan Gilleon, the lawyer representing the plaintiff, divulged that “Araiza offered us ‘cash’ before he made the cut. We ignored the bush-league offer and filed a case.”
When FanSided’s Amy Kaplan emailed Armstrong for comment on his statements, this was his response:
“Yes, I have corrected information regarding that. I did an interview on Channel 8 San Diego last night, and the last question the anchor asked me was regarding that issue. I replied something to the effect of, “You better believe it” (i.e., that Araiza told the Bills about these allegations before the draft). I did not realize until this morning when I watched it back that I obviously misheard the question. Araiza had no idea of the allegations at the time of the draft in late April of this year. In fact, he did not learn of them until the first L.A. Times article came out several weeks ago. And that is when he retained me.It is my understanding that Araiza then informed the Bills of these allegations in late July or early August of this year.”
Armstrong has described the allegations as a “shakedown” of his client, although the Los Angeles Times has verified diary entries by the survivor describing the sexual assault.
The survivor, identified as “Jane Doe,” also filed a police report and underwent a rape exam the day following the assault. The process by which Jane Doe identified those involved in the incident was guided by the police department.
Jane Doe has been working with the San Diego Police Department since October 2021 to hold those who sexually assaulted her accountable for their violence.
The Buffalo Bills have been definitively aware for at least a month, and they still chose Araiza over Matt Haack. Is it so unreasonable to think the Bills drafted Araiza knowing the allegations against him?