Achieving a historic 12-win season and earning a spot in the final College Football Playoff Top 25 Rankings brought many advantages for the San Diego State Aztecs. One of those is national recognition for its most talented players who caught the eyes of NFL scouts looking for the next great professional prospect.
Three juniors, all local San Diego kids, were named to the Associated Press All-American Teams. Cameron Thomas, Matt Araiza, and William Dunkle decided to forego their senior seasons on the Mesa and declare for the NFL Draft. A fourth player, senior Daniel Bellinger, also took the next step in his career rather than return to SDSU for a super senior season.
All four players have the talent to compete and excel at the next level. EVT caught up with Dane Brugler, NFL Draft Analyst for The Athletic, to gain some insight on how teams are evaluating the Aztecs’ enrollees as the draft process is set to begin.
In his Mock Draft 1.0 released on November 30, 2021, Brugler slotted Thomas to the Dallas Cowboys with the 25th pick of the first round, adding, “Thomas has been nearly unblockable this season for the Aztecs, currently leading college football with 72 pressures.”
Thomas won the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year after collecting 20.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks this past season. He was named to several First and Second All-American Teams by various national media outlets.
Brugler ranked Thomas as the 7th-best edge rusher in this draft class last month and says teams view him as a second-round prospect. “It’s a loaded defensive end class,” Brugler said. Thomas will have a chance to separate himself from other edge rushers in his tier as the draft process unfolds with the combine and private team workouts to “prove he belongs in one of the top 32 spots.”
A redshirt junior entering this season, Thomas quickly showed scouts he is a pro prospect with his play to start the season. Brugler praised Thomas’ lateral quickness and constant effort to get to the ball. “He’s going to make stops at all different points of the field,” said Brugler. “That motor really helps him frequently make tackles away from the line of scrimmage that a lot of defensive ends just don’t make. He’s quick to find the football, and he’s always in pursuit mode.”
Another attribute teams love about Thomas is his versatility to play up and down the line of scrimmage. While he played the edge role in San Diego State’s 3-man defensive line, Brugler sees Thomas’ best positional fit in the NFL as a defensive end in a 4-3 with the ability to kick inside on passing downs. “He has shown that he can line up on the inside shade of the guard, and he can win on the interior because he has that quickness,” said Brugler. Since NFL defenses vary their fronts constantly, Thomas’ versatility to play inside or outside will give him a boost to climb teams’ draft boards.
Several other three-round mock drafts have slotted Thomas from the first round to not listed. In the latest CBS Sports mock draft published this week, Ryan Wilson has the Chargers drafting Thomas with the 20th pick in the first round. Thomas, a redshirt junior who earned his degree this December, accepted an invite to play in the Senior Bowl and will look to showcase his top-tier talent to NFL teams.
Brugler ranked Bellinger as the 13th-best tight end in this draft class last month. Bellinger’s seasonal production did not overtly scream NFL caliber tight end, finishing 2021 with 31 receptions for 357 yards and only two touchdowns.
According to Brugler, scouts are not overlooking Bellinger, understanding that the lack of production is more a by-product of the offense San Diego State ran than a lack of talent and ability by Bellinger. “[Scouts] see the traits,” says Brugler. “He’s big. He’s a smooth athlete. Really dependable ball skills. He doesn’t overwhelm his opponent [as a blocker], but more often than not, he gets the job done.”
Just three years ago, another Aztec tight end with limited production in his collegiate career, Kahale Warring, was drafted by the Houston Texans with the 86th pick (3rd round) in the NFL Draft. Waring caught 31 passes for 372 yards and three touchdowns, almost identical to Bellinger’s final season.
“Teams are not drafting you based on what you have done,” notes Brugler. “They are drafting you based on what they think you will do.”
Brugler predicts Bellinger will be the second San Diego State player drafted (after Cameron Thomas). Bellinger recently signed with JB Sports, Inc., the same agency that represents San Francisco 49ers tight end, George Kittle. Kittle trains in the offseason in Nashville, Tennessee, and will work SDSU’s tight end there. Bellinger began training with Jeremy Holt, Owner of AthELITE Performance, yesterday in Music City, USA, along with tight ends Chase Allen (Iowa State) and Jake Ferguson (Wisconsin) in preparation for the NFL Draft. In this year’s tight end class, Brugler ranked Ferguson 12th, one spot higher than Bellinger. Bellinger will have a massive opportunity to show teams that he should be drafted in the top 100 like his former tight end mate, starting with the Senior Bowl and then the NFL Combine.
The Ray Guy Award winner and unanimous First-Team All-American declared for the NFL Draft last week with hopes of becoming the next punter drafted in the NFL. Unlike other positions, not many teams are looking to add a rookie punter to their team, let alone willing to draft a punter with a precious draft pick. Only one punter, Pressley Harvin III, was drafted last year, taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 254th pick (7th round).
Brugler assesses that Araiza, the top punter in the draft, will likely be a Day 3 draftee (rounds four through seven) and could go early in Day 3 depending on how impressive he performs during team workouts. Special teams coaches will want to see “his mechanics, how quick he’s able to transition, how the ball comes off his leg, the power that he has” in person.
Certainly, a benefit for Araiza is his ability to also excel at kickoffs and handle place-kicking duties if necessary, providing more reason to use a middle-round pick on the Ray Guy Award winner. “The more you can do to justify a roster spot is the motto of the NFL,” said Brugler, adding that teams may feel more comfortable drafting a punter in the fourth or fifth round if they know the punter also has a penchant for touchbacks on kickoffs.
Ray Guy is the only punter to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. The Raiders drafted him with the 23rd pick in 1973. Only two punters since 1982 were drafted in the second round of the NFL Draft; Rohn Stark with the 34th pick in 1982 by the Baltimore Colts and Todd Sauerbrun with the 56th pick in 1995 by the Chicago Bears.
In the past 25 years, the highest-drafted punter was Bryan Anger, selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars with the 70th pick in the 3rd round. Anger is the only punter chosen earlier than the fourth round since 2005. Anger’s cumulative yard per punt average in four years at California was 43.5, including a high of 45.6 in his junior season. Araiza set the FBS record this year with a 51.19 average. Braden Mann, the punter who previously held the FBS record with a 50.98 average, was drafted by the New York Jets in the 6th round in 2020.
Dunkle declared for the NFL Draft after finishing the season with a 98.8 run-blocking grade, the highest by an offensive lineman since Pro Football Focus (PFF) began tracking the metric. Dunkle also earned First Team All-American by Pro Football Network and Second Team All-American by the Associated Press.
While the PFF analytics are excellent indicators of success, NFL teams will trust their evaluations from watching game tape and in-person workouts.
While Brugler assesses Dunkle’s draft stock as a late-round pick based on his questionable athleticism to hold up in pass protection, he believes Dunkle “has the play strength to turn defenders in the hole and be a dominant force in a phone booth in the run game.” He also rated Dunkle above average in all of the games he studied this year and found him dominant against Air Force and UTSA in the Frisco Bowl.
“The question mark on him will be whether he has the athleticism and the speed to hold up against quick, interior rushers in the NFL,” said Brugler. “There are times where he gets crossed up in pass protection, and his feet get a little stuck in the mud,” something Brugler saw on tape against Utah and Arizona, two Power 5 opponents the Aztecs played this year.
According to PFF, Dunkle registered a 38.0 pass-blocking grade and committed two penalties against Arizona and a 55.6 grade against Utah the following week on 18 pass opportunities in each game. His worse pass-blocking grade came the next week against Towson, registering a 34.3 grade on 26 passing opportunities. However, his pass-blocking steadily improved throughout the final ten games of the season, and he finished with a 73.3 pass-blocking grade.
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When asked if there were any other Aztec players with potential draft stock, Brugler named left tackle Zach Thomas and running back Greg Bell as two guys who have a shot to be late-round picks or priority free agents (PFA). “Thomas has been a really solid player for [SDSU],” Brugler said.
While praising Bell for his vision and ability to find the cutback lane, he highlights the struggles in pass protection and ball security. “In the NFL, teams have to be able to trust you, and those are two issues that are going to hurt him throughout the process,” said Brugler. Bell will need to distinguish himself throughout the draft process if he wants to earn a shot at impressing a team and a spot in training camp.
Two additional teammates will look to add to the recent list of secondary players who made the jump to the NFL after excelling at San Diego State. Cornerback Tayler Hawkins accepted an invite to the Hula Bowl, which takes place on January 15 in Orlando, FL. While Trenton Thompson has not been invited to either of the four end of season all-star bowl games, he will look to impress scouts throughout the draft process, starting with San Diego State’s pro day, annually held in March.
Avid sports fan and historian of basketball, baseball, football and soccer. UC San Diego and San Diego State alumni living in America’s Finest City. Diverse team following across multiple sports leagues, but Aztecs come first in college athletics.