Big 12-bound BYU continues NFL draft momentum with 3 players taken in first 5 rounds
Offensive tackle Blake Freeland, quarterback Jaren Hall and receiver Puka Nacua picked up by Colts, Vikings and Rams, respectively
All things considered, Saturday’s final four rounds of the NFL draft could not have gone much better for the BYU football program, which has made putting guys into the NFL a priority under eighth-year head coach Kalani Sitake.
After getting shut out in the first three rounds Thursday and Friday — which wasn’t a huge surprise — BYU saw three of its top offensive stars get taken in the fourth and fifth rounds as left tackle Blake Freeland, quarterback Jaren Hall and receiver Puka Nacua all heard their names called in the middle of the draft.
It is the first draft since 2002 that BYU has had three former players picked in the first five rounds. That year, tight end Doug Jolley and defensive tackle Ryan Denney went in the second round and quarterback Brandon Doman went in the fifth.
“Jaren is an ultimate leader. He’s all about the team, does everything right. Just a great kid, and a great leader (who) has tons of ability. He will do amazing things to help the Vikings.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake on Jaren Hall.
All in all, it was a solid showing for a program needing major talent upgrades and a track record of placing people in the pros to show recruits as it moves into the Big 12.
More validation for what offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick is doing in Provo came in the form of Freeland getting picked up by the Indianapolis Colts at pick No. 106 in the fourth round, Hall getting selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the fifth round with the No. 164 overall pick, and Nacua going to the Los Angeles Rams in the final pick of the fifth round, at No. 177 overall.
Freeland and Hall went about where they were predicted to go — maybe a round or two later than expected — while Nacua’s selection was a mild surprise for the Washington transfer considering he was projected to go in the seventh round, or not at all, by most mock drafts.
Hall becomes the headliner for BYU
Although he wasn’t the first Cougar taken, Hall was BYU’s headliner Saturday, as quarterbacks often are. Two years after the New York Jets took Hall’s predecessor as BYU’s starting QB, Zach Wilson, with the No. 2 overall pick, the Vikings made Hall the 12th QB selected in the 2023 draft.
Never before have 12 QBs gone in the draft before the conclusion of the fifth round.
“Hall has the potential to be a Brock Purdy-type guy,” said ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, referring to how the San Francisco 49ers struck gold last year when they took the Iowa State QB with the final pick of the 2022 draft and the rookie turned into a savior, guiding the Niners into the NFL playoffs after starting the season as a third-stringer.
As the run on guys who will be considered backup QBs in the NFL picked up in the fourth round, ESPN’s Adam Schefter called it the “Brock Purdy effect,” and Hall became a beneficiary.
“Jaren is an ultimate leader,” Sitake said. “He’s all about the team, does everything right. Just a great kid, and a great leader (who) has tons of ability. He will do amazing things to help the Vikings.”
Unlike the situation Wilson went to in New York, Hall will clearly be a developmental project for the Vikings in Minneapolis. Minnesota has an established starter in Kirk Cousins and a veteran backup in Nick Mullens. Theoretically, Hall will push Mullens for that primary backup spot.
Hall entered the draft ranked anywhere between No. 8 and No. 12 on most QB lists. Three quarterbacks went in the fourth round — Fresno State’s Jake Haener to the Saints, Georgia’s Stetson Bennett to the Rams and Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell to the Raiders.
In the fifth round, the Cardinals took Houston’s Clayton Tune with the No. 139 overall pick, the Browns claimed UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson at 140 and the Packers nabbed Penn State’s Sean Clifford.
One NFL draft analyst, Albert Greer of Monday Morning Quarterback, tweeted that Hall went “a bit later than expected, but there were concerns over his medical (status).”
Hall made his first start in 2019, becoming the first Black athlete to start a game at quarterback for BYU, but suffered a concussion in that game against South Florida. A hip injury kept the former BYU baseball outfielder off the field in 2020 when Wilson was shining, and various rib and ankle injuries caused him to miss games in 2021 and 2022.
“This is a guy with a lot of upside as a potential developmental quarterback,” said ESPN’s Reece Davis.
Added Riddick: “Yeah, a lot of people in his BYU tenure compared him to Russell Wilson in terms of the body build, the baseball background. … They love Jaren Hall at BYU. They say he is the perfect prospect in terms of his commitment, his maturity.”
Davis talked about how Hall served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and relayed a story about how “about 100 people that he had impacted from his mission” (in Sacramento) attended last November’s BYU-Stanford game in Palo Alto, California.
Hall takes some impressive numbers into the NFL, such as throwing for 6,174 yards and 52 touchdowns with just 11 interceptions. But perhaps his greatest accomplishment was that he beat eight Power Five teams in his two seasons as a starter.
The 13th QB taken in the draft also has some BYU ties; Stanford’s Tanner McKee, a returned missionary who was heavily recruited by BYU, was drafted by the Super Bowl runner-up Philadelphia Eagles in the sixth round.
Reaction to Hall’s selection was a bit mixed.
Dion Caputi of NFL Draft Update wrote: “Probably the best QB selected today (Saturday), per my board. Jaren Hall has a terrific arm, combine with upper-echelon athleticism and an impressive ability to read coverages. … Another older QB prospect.”
But Eric Edholm of NFL.com cautioned Vikings fans to not get their hopes up that Hall is the heir apparent to Cousins, who is 34 years old.
“Hall is a 25-year-old deep-ball chucker and sort of a poor man’s Russell Wilson if you squint at him in the right light,” Edholm wrote. “There might not be tremendous upside here, but Hall can give them a developmental placeholder at QB.”
Big Blake Freeland fills a big need for Colts
A lot of prognosticators thought the 49ers would use one of their late third round picks on Freeland as they try to replace departed tackle Mike McGlinchey, but San Francisco went with a kicker — a kicker! — at No. 99 in taking Michigan’s Jake Moody. Then they made former Olympus High star Cameron Latu, a tight end, the 101st pick.
Kansas City, with former BYU lineman Andy Reid at the helm, was said to be wanting Freeland with pick No. 92 in the third round, but after trading up the Chiefs took tackle Wanya Morris of Oklahoma.
So Freeland had to spend Friday night without a destination before the Colts took him with the fourth pick of the fourth round.
“It is a dream come true,” Freeland said in a teleconference moments after becoming the second former Cougar offensive tackle to be drafted in the past three seasons, joining Brady Christensen of the Carolina Panthers. “I wasn’t expecting a call from the Colts, but I am freaking pumped about it, ready to get going, ready to get working.”
Freeland, 6-foot-7 and 305 pounds, said he wasn’t expecting the Colts to draft him because his agent — Collin Roberts of Rep1 Sports — had given him a list of teams most interested in him and the Colts weren’t on it.
“But I had good interviews with them at the NFL combine and the Senior Bowl, so it worked out great,” Freeland said. “I was able to meet some of their coaches, so that was awesome.”
Freeland played right tackle his first two seasons at BYU and left tackle his final two seasons, after playing everything from tight end to quarterback to offensive line at Herriman High in the Southwestern Salt Lake Valley. He said he probably prefers left tackle but can play either side.
Freeland said to prepare to play at the next level he’s studied film of former Los Angeles Rams standout Andrew Whitworth.
“Him just being another 6-foot-7 tackle, he is great to watch and take notes on,” Freeland said.
The Colts used their No. 4 overall pick to draft Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, so when Freeland was picked ESPN’s Davis noted: “You gotta make sure you get some dudes up there to take care of the new franchise quarterback.”
ESPN noted how Freeland “was born to play at Brigham Young” because his father Jim was a BYU linebacker and his mother Debbie was a BYU basketball star.
“He has the potential to go in there and win the left tackle job, because it is wide open,” Riddick said. “It is up for grabs.”
Freeland allowed just two sacks in his four year career in more than 1,400 pass-blocking snaps protecting Hall, backup Baylor Romney and Wilson.
“You have a guy who ran well, who had the best vertical jump and broad jump (at the combine) of all the offensive tackles in this group,” said ESPN’s Todd McShay. “There is a lot to work with here.”
Puka Nacua gets a nice surprise
If there was a player on BYU’s roster in 2022 who deserves to go to Hollywood, it is the ever-smiling, ever-positive Nacua as he follows the footsteps of older brothers Kai and Samson into the NFL.
Nacua caught 91 passes for 1,430 yards and 11 touchdowns in two seasons in Provo after transferring from Washington in order to be closer to his mother and ailing grandmother. The Orem High product was used all over the field by Roderick in 2021 and 2022, including as a running back.
He’s easily one of the top playmakers, when he is healthy, to come out of BYU.
Nacua sustained a concussion at the Senior Bowl practices that kept him out of the game and from doing much at the NFL combine, but apparently the Rams noticed his abilities when he was able to play.
“Nacua had some Cooper Kupp-like moments in the first practice in Mobile, Alabama, before shutting it down,” wrote NFL.com’s Edholm. “Injuries have followed him every year, but Nacua has a big-play track record over four years.”
Nacua becomes only the third BYU receiver to get drafted in the last 14 years, joining Austin Collie (2009) and Dax Milne (2021).
“Puka is the most explosive playmaker I’ve ever coached,” Roderick said. “He has an outstanding ability to run with the ball after the catch. He will be a great playmaker in the NFL.”
Added BYU receivers coach Fesi Sitake: “In Puka, you’re getting someone who is all football. He eats, sleeps and breathes football. He’s very studious with film. He loves his craft as a receiver. “