ALLEN PARK, Mich. — It had been 29 years and 236 picks since the Detroit Lions last took a punter in the NFL Draft.
That streak came to an end Saturday when the Lions selected Appalachian State’s Sam Martin with a late fifth-round pick, No. 165 overall.
The choice was undoubtedly met with some snickers — a punter in the fifth round? — but it was without a doubt a position of need for the Lions.
Detroit had one of the league’s worst punt games last season, which only made things worse for a struggling defense. The club chose not to re-sign free agent Nick Harris.
Martin, listed at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds in college, turned himself into a draft pick with basically one breakout season.
Having averaged just 40 yards, 39.2 yards and 40.9 yards during the previous three years, Martin emerged as a fifth-year senior.
He was selected first-team FCS (Division I-AA) All-American after averaging 45.9 yards on 60 punts, including 25 inside the 20-yard line. He also had 45 touchbacks on 71 kickoffs and made 7-of-10 field goals.
Martin had accepted a soccer scholarship to Georgia State before getting pressured into joining his high-school football team as a kicker during his senior year.
It didn’t take long for college football teams to start showing interest, including Auburn.
Martin failed to win the starting job at kicker during his first year at App. State, got redshirted and was asked to try punting for the first time in his life.
“I had the strong leg but the consistency wasn’t always there,” he said. “I always excelled at kickoffs just because of my raw leg strength. Punting is so technical. It took me a few years to really get it down.”
The last time the Lions drafted a punter was in 1984 when they took San Diego State’s Mike Saxon in the 11th round with the 300th pick overall.
Saxon never made it with the Lions but he did go on to an 11-year NFL career with Dallas, New England and Minnesota.
Martin said he got together Saturday to watch the draft with his family and a good friend at his sister’s home in Charlotte, N.C.
He said he had “no expectations” of actually getting drafted, thinking that he’d probably have to settle for a free-agent offer from one of several teams that had showed interest.
“I thought there was a possibility of maybe getting drafting and probably a better possibility of not,” he said. “I made it clear to everybody that this was just to watch the draft, not see my name.”
Eleven picks before he was taken, the Vikings selected another punter, UCLA’s Jeff Locke.
When it was the Lions’ turn, Martin told himself, “Maybe … maybe … just maybe.”
There was no maybe about it.
Martin, whose father played baseball at Eastern Michigan and whose mother grew up in Union Lake, Mich., said he stood up and raised his arm.
“Tears here and there, but we don’t have to get into that,” he said.
Lions coach Jim Schwartz said that Martin has “a live leg,” which Harris clearly didn’t possess anymore.
General manager Martin Mayhew decided it was “the appropriate time” to sacrifice a draft pick on a punter.
“He’s got a great opportunity to be our starting punter,” Mayhew said. “If you’ve got a late fifth-round pick, and the punters typically go in the sixth round, that might be the right time to take him before somebody else does. That’s how we felt about Sam.”
Martin knows he’ll hear some snide comments when he returns to Michigan about being from Appalachian State, which pulled off an unforgettable upset of the Wolverines in 2007.
Martin was wearing an App. State cap when he made a visit to the Lions earlier this month and got a reaction from fans at the airport.
“No animosity,” he said. “It was all in good fun, just asked if I happened to play on that team or not, which I didn’t. I was a year after.”
THE OTHER PICKS
The Lions ended up making five other picks Saturday, taking South Carolina defensive end Devin Taylor in the fourth round (No. 132 overall); Virginia Tech receiver Corey Fuller (No. 171) and Notre Dame running back Theo Riddick (No. 199) in the sixth round; and Alabama tight end Michael Williams (No. 211) and Florida A&M inside linebacker Brandon Hepburn (No. 245) in the seventh round.
Taylor, who is 6-7, 266 pounds with long arms, started 45 games and made 35 ½ tackles for loss, including 18 ½ sacks, during his career.
Fuller (6-2, 204) attended Kansas on a track scholarship for two years before transferring to Virginia Tech to play football, too.
Riddick is a versatile threat who can also play receiver and return kicks.
Williams, who’s 6-5, 278 pounds and known as “Big Mike,” started for four straight years for the Crimson Tide.
Hepburn is a former walk-on at FAMU, a FCS school. He has a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and says he eventually wants to own a pharmaceutical company.