Are NFL teams shying away from drafting returned Latter-day Saint missionaries?
At least 11 returned missionaries are in the NFL, including former BYU greats Taysom Hill, Daniel Sorensen and Bronson Kaufusi and ex-Utah stars Garett Bolles, Chase Hansen and Matt Gay, but few were drafted and most had to go the undrafted free agent route
After posting one of the most dominant seasons for a safety in all of college football, according to Pro Football Focus’s ratings, Lee sat out the Hawaii Bowl rather than risk re-aggravating a bothersome hamstring injury.
He worked with some of best trainers in the state, including former Cougar Jordan Pendleton and former Ute John Madsen. When COVID-19 forced the cancellation of BYU’s pro day, he helped arrange his own in Las Vegas with laser timing, then showed some remarkable athleticism and strength in the lifts, jumps and agility drills. His 40-inch vertical jump would have been the third-best among safeties at the NFL combine.
But Lee, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound father of two with an impeccable reputation as a hard-working, high-character leader, was not selected in any of the seven rounds of the NFL draft last month. Worse, since then he has not received a single NFL free agent opportunity like BYU teammates Ty’Son Williams, Aleva Hifo and Dayan Ghanwoloku did.
“His age and his injury history,” said Pendleton, who trains dozens of NFL draft hopefuls a year at his Pendleton Performance facility in Lehi.
Lee is 26. Upon graduating from Sandy’s Alta High, he played a year at Utah, then served a two-year mission to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Like most RMs, he is two or three years older than the typical college senior.
“Austin is a phenomenal athlete,” Pendleton said. “He put up incredible numbers at his pro day. He had some good game film, made a lot of plays against Power Five opponents. But nobody wants to draft somebody who is going to be a 26-year-old rookie. Most NFL players who are 26, they have already been in the league for five or six years. So that makes it tough.”
“I think missions do hurt a guy’s prospects for an NFL opportunity, for sure. Anybody that says that they don’t hurt, I think they are totally wrong.” — Former BYU LB Jordan Pendleton.
Lee says none of the dozens of NFL representatives he talked to before the draft mentioned his age. But most asked him about his mission, and he told them how it made him more mature, organized and responsible. Yet his agent still waits for a team to call back.
Lee is not alone. Several returned missionaries who played at BYU and other schools throughout the country who seemingly had the chops to get at least a look from an NFL team didn’t get drafted, either.
“I think missions do hurt a guy’s prospects for an NFL opportunity, for sure,” Pendleton said. “Anybody that says that they don’t hurt, I think they are totally wrong.”
Orem-based NFL agent Evan Brennan, a BYU alum who represented Hifo and Ghanwoloku (who aren’t returned missionaries), agrees with Pendleton — to a point.
“I am a returned missionary, so I do buy into it. I think teams are looking for upside, and age does come into play. If you don’t have much developmental nature in you, you have got to be able to contribute right away,” Brennan said before the draft. “And if you are not good enough to contribute right away in a starting or backup role with an NFL team, your value goes down if you are not going to get any better. So there is less incentive to invest in you.”
Brennan also represents Weber State defensive end Jonah Williams, a 25-year-old returned missionary from Meridian, Idaho, who tested extraordinarily well and was projected by some to be the rare prospect who would be drafted despite not being invited to the NFL combine.
Jonah Williams wasn’t drafted, though. He did land a free agent deal with the Los Angeles Rams “because he is viewed as a finished product” who can contribute right away, according to Brennan.
In fairness, Brennan noted before the draft and free agent frenzy that occurs when the seventh round ends that fewer guys than ever would get mini-camp invites because the coronavirus pandemic made in-person evaluations impossible. He was right. That might explain why Lee was snubbed.
“Age and (perceived lack of) upside are the real problem with returned missionaries and the NFL,” Brennan said. “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.”
Throw in a history of injuries, albeit relatively minor ones like Lee had, “and it is a risk a lot of teams aren’t willing to take,” said Pendleton, who didn’t serve a church mission but knows firsthand how injuries can derail NFL dreams.
Two other returned missionaries from BYU with draft and/or free agent aspirations, tight end Moroni Laulu-Pututau and safety Beau Tanner, also failed to land NFL opportunities, along with receiver Micah Simon and defensive tackle JJ Nwigwe.
Pendleton was also surprised by Simon getting snubbed, saying the non-Latter-day Saint Texan showed plenty of upside during a breakout senior year and, like Lee, shined in his pro day-like outing in front of a handful of scouts.
Utah traditionally has a handful of RMs on its roster, but of the seven Utes who were drafted and five who got free agent opportunities, only linebacker Francis Bernard — the transfer from BYU — is a returned missionary. Bernard, 24, served a shortened mission to Atlanta, and quickly signed a free agent deal with the Dallas Cowboys minutes after the draft ended.
Before the draft, NFL agents Ness Mugrabi, who represented Lee, and Matt Steinberg, who represented BYU’s Tanner along with his father, well-known agent Leigh Steinberg, both predicted Lee and Tanner would get NFL opportunities despite having served missions.
They were wrong, although some last-minute invitations could be extended when more is known about how the pandemic will affect the NFL season.
“There are a ton of guys in the NFL who went on missions,” said Mugrabi, who is part of the DEC Management, highly respected agent David Canter’s agency. “I don’t think that is going to hurt at all. Austin is going to go to the NFL and there have been a lot of guys who have done it and I am sure he is going to do it as well.”
Currently, 11 players who were former missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are on NFL rosters. But of those, only BYU’s Bronson Kaufusi (New York Jets), Utah’s Garett Bolles (Denver Broncos) and Matt Gay (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), UCLA’s Xavier Su’a-Filo (Cincinnati Bengals) and Hawaii’s John Ursua (Seattle Seahawks) were drafted.
BYU’s Taysom Hill (New Orleans Saints), Corbin Kaufusi (New York Jets), Daniel Sorensen (Kansas City Chiefs) and Harvey Langi (New York Jets), Utah’s Chase Hansen (New Orleans Saints) and Memphis’ Jordan Devey (Las Vegas Raiders) were undrafted free agents.
The list of recently retired or waived NFL players who served missions includes Utah’s Isaac Asiata and Tony Bergstrom, Southern Utah’s James Cowser and BYU’s John Denney.
BYU coach Kalani Sitake said Thursday that nearly 70% of his team’s roster is comprised of returned missionaries. He believes that one of the reasons why so few BYU players have been drafted recently — only seven since 2010, and none in 2020 — is that NFL teams are shying away from taking “older” players.
“I think there are guys in this (BYU senior) class that will make teams,” Sitake told BYUtv sports. “I think my job is to change the image that a lot of the NFL has of returned missionaries, because that’s been the problem. I am trying to get NFL guys to understand that returned missionaries can add a lot of value to their programs, because they are taking them as undrafted free agents, and then they are making their football teams.”
Former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall used to say that many players are better off being undrafted free agents than late-round picks because they have more freedom in choosing a team, but there’s a certain prestige to getting drafted, including a nice publicity surge for a program, as Utah just experienced after having seven players selected.
And the money is better.
“A lot of NFL general managers know that there is a stigma surrounding returned missionaries and they can pick them up at a lower cost as an undrafted free agent,” said former BYU player Ben Criddle, host of Cougar Sports on ESPN 960 AM in Utah. “Mission and marriage can also change a player’s perspective, so there may be more to it than just age. The NFL is a unique environment — nothing like BYU. Maybe that’s a reason why RMs aren’t taken as much.”
Sitake mentioned that Hill recently signed a $21 million contract extension with the Saints and former Cougar Sorensen was a starter for the Super Bowl champions.
“And I didn’t hear anything about their age,” he said.
Returned Latter-day Saint missionaries in the NFL
• BYU’s Taysom Hill (New Orleans Saints)
• BYU’s Corbin Kaufusi (New York Jets)
• BYU’s Bronson Kaufusi (New York Jets)
• BYU’s Daniel Sorensen (Kansas City Chiefs)
• BYU’s Harvey Langi (New York Jets)
• Utah’s Garett Bolles (Denver Broncos)
• Utah’s Matt Gay (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
• Utah’s Chase Hansen (New Orleans Saints)
• Memphis’ Jordan Devey (Las Vegas Raiders)
• UCLA’s Xavier Su’a-Filo (Cincinnati Bengals)
• Hawaii’s John Ursua (Seattle Seahawks)