Written by John Sparaco
The Buffalo Bills wrapped up the 2022 preseason with a 21-0 shutout loss against the Carolina Panthers on Friday, ending their 10 game preseason win streak.
None of the starters took the field for Buffalo, other than specialists Tyler Bass and Reid Ferguson, who do not have backups. Rookie cornerbacks Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford also appeared as they are both competing for starting spots with the status of Tre’Davious White’s potential return still uncertain.
The beginning of the game was delayed due to lightning in the area, however, those were not the darkest clouds surrounding the organization. On Thursday, a civil lawsuit was filed in state court accusing Bills punter Matt Araiza and two other San Diego State University football players of gang raping a 17-year-old girl at an off-campus party in October of 2021.
Dan Gilleon, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, told the Associated Press that he first informed the Bills of the allegations against Araiza in late July, when he said he had a phone conversation with team counsel Kathryn D’Angelo. However, he said he has not heard from team officials since.
The Bills quickly issued a statement after the lawsuit was filed, claiming that they were recently made aware of the civil complaint and conducted a “thorough examination” of this matter. Citing that the case is ongoing, the organization offered no further comment at the time.
“The facts of the incident are not what they are portrayed in the lawsuit or in the press,” Araiza said in a statement released during the game. He added that he looks forward to quickly setting the record straight.
Araiza arrived at Bank of America Stadium in non-team issued clothing, unlike the rest of the players and staff. While he was in the building for the game, he did not dress or play. Katherine Fitzgerald of The Buffalo News reported after the game that he was not present in the locker room, nor did he have a locker set up.
Coach Sean McDermott appeared to be visibly shaken when speaking to the media after the game, saying he hasn’t slept much and that he had learned some new information regarding Araiza within the past 24 hours. McDermott, who made the decision to sit Araiza on Friday, emphasized that the priority for the team is to “find the truth and do the right thing.”
How will the Matt Araiza situation unfold?
The NFL is handcuffed in this situation because the alleged incident took place prior to Araiza being drafted by the Bills. The league’s Personal Conduct Policy does not cover alleged conduct occurring before a player is drafted. Therefore, both the league and the Bills cannot suspend him.
Theoretically, the only “quick” solution for the Bills would be to cut Araiza, who won the starting punting job over Matt Haack last week. However, that raises the risk that the NFL Player Association would go after them for releasing a player for reasons other than skill or performance. Similarly, the NFLPA recently fought hard to limit the suspension of Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, who was accused of sexual assault by over 20 women.
“This is a game, but there are other things that are more important than this,” McDermott said. Without getting into any specifics on how the organization will move forward, he repeatedly stated that they have more work to do.
Who punts for the Bills in Week 1?
While Araiza sat on Friday, the Bills were left without a punter on the roster. As a result, backup quarterback Matt Barkley stepped up to handle the punting duties instead.
Barkley punted four times with an average of 40 yards per attempt. His longest punt traveled 53 yards, rolling inside the Panthers’ 10 yard line to pin them deep in their own territory. Not bad at all for someone with no NFL punting experience. Last season, the Bills averaged 42.9 yards per punt.
Despite Barkley’s surprising success with his leg, it is extremely unlikely that he will remain in that role entering the season. Assuming that Araiza is unable to take the field for the foreseeable future as this legal process plays out, Buffalo will have to search for another punter before Week 1. Matt Haack already signed with the Indianapolis Colts a few days back after their starter Rigoberto Sanchez suffered a season ending achilles injury. More than likely, Haack will not be an option for Buffalo.
The free agent market is fairly scarce at this moment, however, teams such as the Tennessee Titans who are in the midst of a punting battle will soon make a decision on their starter, placing the other on the market. Undrafted punter Ryan Stonehouse has performed admirably this summer, pushing longtime Titans punter Brett Kern for the starting job. Kern, a Grand Island native, grew up a Bills fan and the first game he attended as a kid was “The Comeback” against the Houston Oilers in the 1993 playoffs. Whoever the Titans decide to let go prior to Tuesday’s final cutdown day would be an ideal fit for the Bills.
Buffalo native and UB alum Jake Schum, who was the Green Bay Packers’ punter in 2016, is also currently running a Twitter campaign for the Bills to give him an opportunity. He last appeared for the Tampa Bay Vipers of the XFL in 2020.
It is not uncommon to find a new punter this late in the summer. Back in 2018, the Bills claimed Corey Bojorquez off waivers from the New England Patriots despite him not playing a single snap that preseason. He replaced Colton Schmidt, who many thought had already secured the job after the team released Jon Ryan. Do not count out a sleeper candidate emerging to take over the Bills job.
Which fringe roster players make the cut?
In addition to the challenge of sorting through the Araiza mess, general manager Brandon Beane and his staff are tasked with the challenge of narrowing down the roster from 80 players down to the final 53 by Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline.
Buffalo had a lot of close roster battles this preseason. At wideout, will Isaiah Hodgins or Jake Kumerow take the sixth roster spot? Will Tre’Davious White be ready for the start of the season or placed on short-term IR, opening up a spot for another corner? Will there be any surprise cuts?
One position to watch is the tight end spot, which is a wild card behind Dawson Knox. For the most part, free agent addition O.J. Howard has not had a great summer performance-wise, however, his dead cap hit of $2.6 million plus makes it unlikely for him to get cut. That does not rule out a potential trade. The Bills also have to decide whether they will keep two or three tight ends as well as who that potential third tight end might be – Tommy Sweeney, Quintin Morris, or someone from another roster.
How will Buffalo manage their newly created cap space?
Not long after the Cody Ford trade to Arizona was announced, Brandon Beane stated that he would be freeing up some more cap space. He did so by restructuring left tackle Dion Dawkins contract, adding $5.5 million to the team’s cap number in 2022. According to Spotrac, the Bills now have roughly $10 million to work with.
What the Bills plan to do with that additional cap space remains a mystery. Some have speculated that they could use some of it to bring in a veteran free agent such as wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. or cornerback Joe Haden. They could also use the money to extend impending free agents Jordan Poyer and Dawson Knox, if they so choose. If none of that happens, Beane could easily stash that money for later in the season in case a trade opportunity presents itself before the deadline.
The next time the Buffalo Bills take the field, it will count. They travel to Los Angeles to kick off the NFL season on Sept. 8 at 8:20 p.m. EST. Before then, it will be a busy news week for the team filled with plenty of important decisions.