Sterling class: Which BYU players have a realistic chance of being drafted into the NFL next year?
Quarterback Jaren Hall, offensive linemen Blake Freeland and Clark Barrington among the Cougars who could hear their names called in the 2023 NFL draft
Running back Tyler Allgeier has signed a four-year $3.99 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons, including a $333,896 signing bonus, after the former BYU star was picked in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons.
Offensive lineman James Empey and receivers Samson Nacua and Neil Pau’u are getting free agent opportunities with the Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills, respectively.
Although BYU’s showing in the draft was better than in some previous years, it was relatively quiet compared to 2021, when five members of the 2020 Cougars team that went 11-1 and finished with a No. 11 ranking in the final AP Top 25 poll were drafted.
What does next year’s draft look like for BYU? It is early, and a lot could happen between now and April 27-29, 2023, when the draft is held at Kansas City’s Union Station and World War I Museum and Memorial. But it appears the Cougars will be fairly well-represented in the 2023 Player Selection Meeting, especially if a good number of players decide to leave a year or two earlier than they have to.
“This is my job — to develop players so then can get to the next level and achieve their goals and realize their dreams of playing in the NFL.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake
Coach Kalani Sitake addressed that decision-making process for various players as spring camp wrapped up in late March, saying it depends on whether guys want to strike while they are hot, or get more development and possibly leave BYU with a degree in hand.
“We have to accommodate them regardless of when they decide to go to the league and give it their shot,” he said. “We need to make sure that when they do that we do everything we can while they are here to get them to the league.”
Indeed, that’s been a trademark of the Sitake era — the emphasis on preparing guys to play in the NFL. It didn’t exist as much under the previous coaching staff.
With the selection of Allgeier last month, NFL teams have drafted a former BYU player 149 times since the Cougars had their first draft pick way back in 1938, defensive back John Stringham. At least 205 former BYU players have been afforded free-agent opportunities, according to BYU records.
BYU has now had players drafted in six of the last seven drafts, and a total of 10 since Sitake became head coach in 2016.
“This is my job — to develop players so then can get to the next level and achieve their goals and realize their dreams of playing in the NFL,” Sitake told the Deseret News in an exclusive interview after the 2021 draft in Cleveland in which the New York Jets made quarterback Zach Wilson the No. 2 pick overall. “So when a night like this happens, there’s an overwhelming sense of pride, but also a lot of gratitude that these young men and their families trusted us to help make their dreams come true.”
According to mock drafts and some NFL draft experts, a dozen or so BYU players will be on the radars of NFL teams next year. Here’s a closer look at the five Cougars most likely to be considered, with the assumption here that guys with prospects of being drafted in the first five rounds will forego any remaining eligibility.
Jaren Hall, quarterback
After his first full season as BYU’s starting quarterback, Jaren Hall is listed as a junior heading into the 2022 season. The married father of one didn’t flat-out say the 2022 season would be his final one in Provo when he met with reporters at the conclusion of spring camp, but he certainly hinted as much. After all, this will be Hall’s fifth season in the program, and before enrolling in 2018 he served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Sacramento.
Hall redshirted in 2018 and again in 2020, taking a medical redshirt that year due to a hip injury. He started in 10 of 13 games last year, as the injury bug struck again, but completed 64% of his passes for 2,583 yards and 20 touchdowns with only five interceptions for an efficiency rating of 156.1.
If the Cougars and Hall have the kind of season they expect to have, his draft stock could rise quickly, much as Wilson’s did in 2020.
“We don’t really talk expectations, to be honest,” Hall said. “We have goals for our seasons, but expectations-wise, we just try to go play, and play loose. … We execute the way we know how to, and kinda let the result fall into place.”
Financial issues might not work into Hall’s decision, because he spoke at the start of spring camp about how much he’s been blessed by the NIL movement. However, the 2023 draft will be loaded with outstanding quarterback prospects, unlike last month when it was not.
Blake Freeland, left tackle
A former quarterback at Herriman High, the 6-foot-9, 305-pound Freeland enters his fourth season at BYU as a three-year starter and with plenty of expectations. Already, he’s getting some draft buzz, as 247Sports projected the left tackle to be picked in the first round, No. 21 overall, by the Baltimore Ravens.
Considered an outstanding all-around athlete who was also a fine high school basketball player, Freeland replaced All-American Brady Christensen at left tackle last season after Christensen was taken in the third round of the 2021 draft by the Carolina Panthers.
Former BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said in 2019 that Freeland had the potential to follow Christensen to the NFL. New offensive line coach Darrell Funk echoed those sentiments last fall.
Freeland is ranked by Pro Football Focus as the No. 7 tackle in the country. He said in the spring that his sole focus is on earning a spot on BYU’s loaded offensive line this fall, and little else.
“I feel like we have got 10 dudes right now who could play in a game, who could start for us,” he said.
One of those guys is Oregon transfer Kingsley Suamataia, who is pushing for a starting spot at both tackle positions.
Christopher Brooks, running back
Could the Cougars have running backs drafted in consecutive drafts? It could happen, if rave reviews of Brooks’ performance in spring camp are any indication. The fifth-year graduate transfer from Cal replaces Allgeier, who is now participating in a rookie mini-camp with the Falcons.
“He looked really, really good throughout (the spring),” Sitake said of the workhorse back who rushed for 1,734 yards and 14 touchdowns in his four years at Cal.
Known as Chris Brown at Cal his first three seasons before changing his last name to honor his single mother (Raquel Brooks), the running back is built similarly to Allgeier at 6-1, 235 pounds.
“I am not walking in here expecting anything,” Brooks told the Deseret News in March. “I am going to come in here expecting to work every day, just like everybody else. That’s how I have been my whole life. To win games, that’s the mindset everybody needs to have.”
If Brooks makes the NFL, the Cougars would have three or four RBs in the pros, as Jamaal Williams has found a home in Detroit and Allgeier has a good chance of sticking with Atlanta. South Carolina transfer Ty’Son Williams started for the Ravens last year, but Baltimore withdrew its free agent tender on Williiams last week, making him a free agent again.
Gunner Romney, receiver
This might be a surprise selection to some, but Romney has shown through four seasons at BYU that he has the drive, work ethic and desire to keep improving. He has the size, catch radius, physicality, blocking ability, route running ability and intangibles to succeed in professional football. His speed might be a question mark.
Of course, Romney was seemingly finishing up last season, but injuries plagued his fourth year in Provo and resulted in him returning to complete what he called “unfinished business.”
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Romney put up good numbers when he was healthy in 2021 — 34 catches for 594 yards and three TDs in 10 games — and should be a big part of BYU’s offense in 2022, given the departures of Pau’u and Nacua.
For his career, Romney has 117 catches for 1,900 yards and nine touchdowns. Fellow starting receiver Puka Nacua could also be considered a draft prospect in 2023, but Romney for sure will be in the draft next year. Nacua might not be.
Clark Barrington, left guard
Through much of the 2021 season, many believed that three-year starting left guard Clark Barrington was playing is final season in Provo. But the 6-6, 302-pounder who is listed as a redshirt junior this year on the BYU roster announced before the bowl game that he planned to return for a fifth season.
Barrington is older than most rising seniors because he served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Kampala, Uganda, before enrolling at BYU.
“I am going to be here next year and to continue to build upon what I’ve done and hopefully there’s more in the future,” said Barrington, who made the Action Network All-American second team last season.
Barrington has the kind of athletic bloodlines the pros like; his father Shawn played baseball at Arizona and his mother, Jacque, played basketball for the Wildcats.
Clark Barrington has a younger brother who also starts for the Cougars — right guard Campbell Barrington — and is known for his aggressive nature on the field. NFL scouts like that trait, too.
Others who could be in the mix
Obviously, the aforementioned five players aren’t the only Cougars with pro football aspirations, or ability. Depending on how the season goes, and how they develop, nearly a dozen other guys could hear their names called in Kansas City, if they choose to turn pro.
Here’s a quick look at the others:
• Receiver Puka Nacua — Four-star recruit from Orem, who transferred from Washington, has the size and all the tools. It’s just a matter of when he decides to move on.
• Defensive end Tyler Batty — The former Payson High product will be put in the position to make plays — especially sacks — in 2022. If the 6-5, 275-pounder sparkles in his third season, watch out NFL.
• Safety Malik Moore — This speedster has earned his degree, so this certainly will be his last season in Provo. The San Diego native made three picks and 32 tackles last year. A similar season could get him some NFL looks.
• Cornerback Kaleb Hayes — The Oregon State transfer started in 10 games and showed flashes of brilliance in 2021. Coaches love his mental toughness.
• Linebacker Keenan Pili — He was leading the Cougars in tackles with 31 when he suffered a season-ending knee injury. If Pili returns healthy and is as productive in 12 or so games as he was in three last year, he will seemingly have a future in the NFL.
• Punter Ryan Rehkow — Don’t laugh, this kid has an NFL leg and a linebacker’s body. The 6-6, 232-pound Rehkow might choose to get his degree before leaving, so he could be in the mix for 2024. But one never knows with guys who kick the ball for a living. They are a different breed.
• Linebacker Payton Wilgar — A three-year starter who also had his 2021 season ended prematurely by injury, the St. George native is a ballhawking linebacker with NFL instincts, coaches say. Five interceptions as an LB are proof of that.
• Cornerback D’Angelo Mandell — It would be cool to see “D-Lo” get a shot at the pros, after he once left BYU and worked in a shoe store before returning to the program. He’s yet to record a pick for the Cougars, but made four pass breakups in 2021.