Returned Latter-day Saint missionary was oldest player taken in NFL draft
Older age can be an obstacle to a pro football career. The oldest former missionary seeking one went undrafted but signed a priority free agent deal with large guaranteed money.
Two of the three oldest players selected last week in the 2021 NFL draft are returned missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
BYU defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga, 24.81 years old, to be precise, was the oldest player drafted. The Chicago Bears took him in the seventh and final round of the draft with the 250th overall pick.
The third-oldest player selected was BYU offensive tackle, Brady Christensen, who the Carolina Panthers drafted in the third round with the 70th overall pick. Christensen is 24.59 years old.
Age can be a real obstacle for Latter-day Saint returned missionaries who want to play in the NFL. Teams prefer younger players, because studies show that athletes who succeed at younger ages often have higher “ceilings” or “upside,” meaning they may be more talented, still have more potential to tap or both. Older players already may be what they will be, with less room for more growth and development.
“Age and (perceived lack of) upside are the real problem with returned missionaries and the NFL,” Orem-based NFL agent Evan Brennan told the Deseret News in 2020. “But they are hard workers and generally smart and intelligent, so that’s kinda how you have to sell a returned missionary guy, is you know what he is, and that he is not going to be a headache for you.”
Age may have hurt the draft chances of BYU tight end and returned missionary Matt Bushman, who would have been the oldest player in this year’s draft — by a lot. But Bushman, who is 25.48 years old, went undrafted.
However, Bushman agreed immediately after the draft to a contract with the Las Vegas Raiders as a priority free agent. The Raiders offered him $135,000 in guaranteed money, an clear indication that there was a bidding war for his services. Only eight other undrafted free agents received larger guarantees, according to Spotrac.
For more perspective, one free agent got $1,000 guaranteed. Others received $5,000 or $10,000.
Now, here’s a look at each returned missionary in the draft.
Christensen was so good in some analysts’ eyes — he is BYU’s first consensus All-American since 2009 — that they didn’t believe his age would stop him from being a high draft pick, as early as the draft’s second or third round. He was ranked as the eighth-best offensive tackle and the 62nd-best player in the entire draft by “The Beast,” an NFL draft guide by Dane Brugler of The Athletic (paywall).
Christensen spent two years on a mission in Hamilton, New Zealand, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints between high school and the start of his BYU career. That’s why he is 24 at the start of his NFL career, and why Brugler mentioned his age in his scouting report, a sign of how it is a factor for scouts and teams.
“Overall, Christensen is an older prospect and needs to clean up his timing, but he displays quickness and body flexibility in pass protection and gets the job done as a run blocker. He projects as an NFL starter,” Brugler wrote.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper ranked Christensen lower, 19th at tackle. ESPN’s Todd McShay had him ranked 238th overall. But Pro Football Focus graded Christensen’s 2020 season at 96.0 out of 100, a PFF for a college tackle, and he wowed scouts with his workout at BYU’s pro day.
For the record, Christensen, who is 6-foot-5, 302 pounds, has huge 10.25-inch hands, an 80-inch wingspan and ran the 40 in 4.89 seconds. Only two tackles ran faster than that for NFL scouts this spring, and one went in the first round on Thursday night, Rashawn Slater.
Christensen spoke to the Deseret News last fall about the importance of prayer in his football career.
Fehoko is a former Latter-day Saint missionary who is a bit younger, 23.48 years old, to be exact. The Dallas Cowboys drafted him in the fifth round with pick No. 179.
Fehoko served a mission in Seoul, South Korea, then played wide receiver at Stanford. Brugler ranked him at No. 16 on his wide receiver list. He is big, and he is fast for his size with a 4.43-second 40 time.
“Older prospect due to his religious mission and will be a 24-year old NFL rookie,” Brugler wrote. He added, “Fehoko is older and still growing into the position, but he has impressive short-area quickness for his size with the hand-eye coordination to reel in tough throws. He offers enticing pass-catching traits and special teams ability worth developing.”
Kiper ranked Fehoko, who is nearly 6-foot-4 and weighs 222 pounds, 94th overall in the draft, 19th at wide receiver.
The player eight months younger than Bushman but second-oldest in the draft, based on Brugler’s analysis, is Tonga, who is 24.81 years old and served in the church’s Kansas Wichita Mission before beginning his BYU career.
He turns 25 on July 7.
Tonga is a big, run-stopping inside defensive lineman at 6-foot-2, 325 pounds. But he ran a fast 5.07-second time for his size in the 40.
“His pursuit skills and straight-line speed are above average for a nose tackle,” Brugler wrote, also noting his quickness and strength and calling him an “aggressive space-eater.
“He struggled through a tough childhood, but he found direction with his adopted family, the church and BYU football,” the analyst added to his scouting report.
Brugler ranked Tonga 16th among interior defensive linemen and pegged him as a sixth round pick. Kiper has him 19th at the position.
Priority free agents
Once the draft ends, NFL teams scramble to sign priority free agents, players who went undrafted but that teams want enough to sign them to a contract with a modest amount of guaranteed money.
That’s why Brugler’s draft guide included scouting reports on 415 players when only 259 players will be drafted.
After last year’s draft, Dallas gave former missionary and linebacker Francis Bernard $110,000 guaranteed to sign with them, making him one of 20 players to receive more than $100,000, according to Spotrac. Bernard played in 13 games for the Cowboys.
At least two returned missionaries, including Bushman, were signed as free agents after the draft ended.
Bushman was eight months older than the next player on Brugler’s list of likely and possible draftees.
He was the only player over the age of 25, and the new dad actually is nearly halfway to 26: His birthday is Nov. 8.
That’s why, even though Bushman could have returned to play for BYU for again this fall because of an NCAA rule about the COVID-19 pandemic that gave every player another year of college eligibility, he chose to turn pro.
“I have turned 25,” he told the Deseret News previously. “I am a couple years older than most of the rookie class. That definitely makes it harder.”
Bushman was a Freshman All-American tight end at BYU after serving in the Chile Santiago South Mission, but didn’t play last season and didn’t run the 40-yard dash for NFL scouts this spring because he continues to recover after tearing his Achilles tendon during a BYU practice last August.
So what did Brugler think of Bushman, who is 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds? The draft analyst gushed about his focus, hands and NFL readiness and ranked him as the 12th-best tight end in the draft with some potential to be a starter:
“Overall, Bushman is an older prospect coming off a major injury and doesn’t have separation speed, but he is a physical blocker with the ball skills to handle seam work.”
Brugler expected Bushman to be picked in the sixth or seventh round. That didn’t happen, but he’ll have every change to make the Raider roster this fall because of the large guarantee they gave him in his rookie contract.
Kiper has him at 19th at tackle and 249th overall.
Herring, a BYU offensive guard, is 24.51 years old. He signed with the Tennessee Titans after the draft, but Spotrac did not list any guaranteed money in his three-year deal.
Herring served in the Washington D.C. North Mission before arriving at BYU, where he redshirted a year before playing for four years.
At 6-foot-6, 307 pounds, Herring ran a 5.01-second 40 and Brugler likes his flexibility, because he played guard and tackle for the Cougars.
“Overall, Herring is over-aged, plays high-cut and gives up his chest too easily, but he has traits and works hard to finish while offering position flex as a backup,” Brugler said.
He ranked Herring 22nd at guard and expected him to be drafted in the seventh round or become a priority free agent.
Other free agents
Brugler also listed three other former missionaries from BYU who were candidates to get NFL tryouts:
- Zac Dawe, his 48th-ranked edge rusher, served in the Texas Houston Mission. Dawe signed with the Atlanta Falcons.
- Isaiah Kaufusi, who Brugler ranked 42nd at linebacker. Kaufusi served in the Tonga Nuku’alofa Mission. He signed with the Indianapolis Colts.
- Kavika Fonua, ranked 41st at defensive safety. Fonua served in the Canada Vancouver Mission. Fonua received a rookie minicamp invitation from the Carolina Panthers.
The oldest players in the draft
Former Latter-day Saint missionaries made up four of the seven-oldest players who Brugler had expected to be drafted:
- Bushman (25.48 years old).
- Tonga (24.81).
- Arkansas State defensive lineman Forrest Merrill (24.71), who sat out a year at one point, signed after the draft as a priority free agent with the Los Angeles Chargers.
- Rodarius Williams, 24.63 years old, a cornerback from Oklahoma State, who was held back a grade in school and then redshirted a year in college. The New York Giants took him in the sixth round.
- Oklahoma State’s Williams (24.63).
- Illinois State offensive tackle Drew Himmelman (24.61), who grayshirted (didn’t enroll in college the first fall after high school) and redshirted, signed after the draft with the Denver Broncos.
- Christensen (24.59).
- Herring (24.51).