Cougars in the pros: Previewing the 2023 NFL season for former BYU stars

2022 ended as arguably the most prolific NFL campaign for BYU alumni in history.

Fred Warner earned a First Team All-Pro nod at linebacker. Running back Jamaal Williams led the league in rushing touchdowns. Tyler Allgeier ran for more than 1,000 yards as a rookie. Taysom Hill continued to do Taysom things, and Andy Reid ended the year with his second Super Bowl ring in Kansas City.

All in all, former Cougars broke records, made clutch plays, generated national headlines, provided hundreds of highlights and viral moments, carried fantasy teams, carried actual teams, earned prestigious awards and made it abundantly clear that BYU is a legitimate factory for professional talent.

So what will 2023 bring for Brigham’s NFL boys?

Tyler Allgeier — Atlanta Falcons

Just a year removed from breaking BYU’s all-time single season rushing record, Allgeier rewrote history yet again as a rookie in becoming the first former Cougar to rush for 1,000 yards in an NFL season. The fifth round draft selection led the Falcons with 1,035 yards and tallied four total touchdowns, most impressively logging 210 carries without ever fumbling.

Despite this, Atlanta opted to use its first round pick this past April on another running back — generational talent Bijan Robinson — to push Allgeier back to second on the depth chart. While Allgeier likely won’t enjoy the same production as last year, the run-first Falcons offense will still give him plenty of opportunities out of the backfield, especially in goal line and short yardage situations. Most importantly, his new platoon role will result in less wear and tear on his body, which will ideally prolong his career.

Jamaal Williams — Detroit Lions

Williams enjoyed one of the league’s most remarkable breakout campaigns in 2022, setting career-highs with 262 carries and 1,066 yards while leading the league with 17 rushing touchdowns, a total that surpassed Hall of Famer Barry Sanders for the most in a season in Detroit franchise history.

The Lions attempted to re-sign Williams in the offseason, only for him to find their offer “disrespectful.” The seven-year veteran would instead ink a three year, $12 million deal with New Orleans to reunite with his former BYU teammate Taysom Hill. With Saints Pro Bowler Alvin Kamara suspended for the season’s first three contests, Williams will be expected to carry the load early for New Orleans as a true workhorse back while continuing to be one of the league’s most entertaining characters off the field.

Fred Warner — San Francisco 49ers

The crown jewel of San Francisco’s league-best defense, Warner earned First Team All-Pro honors for the second time after recording 130 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and interception in 2022 while posting an elite 83.7 Pro Football Focus grade.

Entering his sixth season with the Niners, Warner will again anchor the team’s elite defensive unit in pursuit of a long-coveted Super Bowl ring. More importantly, another dominant campaign could most certainly cement Warner’s case for early Hall of Fame discussion.

Taysom Hill — New Orleans Saints

What can’t Taysom Hill do? In 2022, the super-utility Saint ran 96 times for 575 yards and seven touchdowns, caught nine balls for 77 yards and two scores, went 13-19 in passing for 240 yards with two touchdowns and did it all while listed as a tight end.

But is he still a tight end?

The Saints interestingly — and mysteriously — listed Hill as a quarterback on their roster earlier this week while still appearing as the co-starter at tight end on their depth chart. New Orleans head coach Dennis Allen had previously said that Hill’s days at quarterback for the Saints were behind him, but perhaps Allen has had a change of heart. With his former Cougar teammate Jamaal Williams joining him the Big Easy, the Saints could elect to use the pair’s existing chemistry in a number of unique packages to continue Hill’s role as the ultimate “Swiss army knife.”

Puka Nacua — Los Angeles Rams

The fifth round rookie Nacua has immediately impressed in Los Angeles, enjoying a solid preseason in which the Rams eventually began holding him out of later exhibition games in a strategic effort to conceal his abilities.

With All-Pro receiver Cooper Kupp ruled out for week one and possibly headed to the injured reserve, Nacua is expected to take his place and play starter-level reps. Nacua’s dynamic skillset — paired with head coach Sean McVay’s creativity on offense — could put the former BYU star in position for a surprisingly productive rookie campaign.

Zach Wilson — New York Jets

Simply put, Wilson endured one of the most turbulent campaigns imaginable for his sophomore effort in New York. The former No. 2 overall pick finished the season with a 5-4 starting record, six touchdowns, seven interceptions, 1,688 passing yards and a 72.8 rating, was benched multiple times, stumbled into a handful of national media controversies, enraged Jets fans and seemed to have a bleak professional future ahead of him.

But then the best possible outcome occurred: he was replaced.

The Jets pulled off the blockbuster deal of the offseason in trading for four-time MVP Aaron Rodgers, placing Wilson as the backup behind his boyhood idol-turned-mentor. Rodgers has taken Wilson under his wing as a “little bro” of sorts, partially viewing his tenure in New York as a chance to prepare Wilson to lead the franchise again one day.

It’s clear that Rodgers’ presence has already done wonders for Wilson, who has appeared much more confident at quarterback in the preseason, finishing 37-56 in passing for 365 yards and a touchdown at a 90.3 QBR clip.

While Wilson likely won’t see anything more than mop up duty in 2023, this year could end up being the most valuable of his career as he learns from Rodgers and continues his development.

Brady Christensen — Carolina Panthers

After an inconsistent rookie showing, Christensen hit his stride at left guard for the Panthers in 2022, starting all 17 games and playing 100% of the team’s offensive snaps before fracturing his ankle in the season finale.

The former third round pick has made a full recovery and will now be tasked with helping to protect Carolina quarterback and No. 1 overall draft selection Bryce Young as the Panthers embark on a new era under first-year head coach Frank Reich.

Michael Davis — Los Angeles Chargers

The former undrafted free agent Davis enjoyed his finest campaign in 2022, starting 12 games at cornerback for the Chargers and posting 62 tackles, 15 pass deflections, a sack, interception and 73.7 Pro Football Focus grade.

Davis now enters his sixth season starting for Los Angeles, having picked off the likes of Tom Brady, Joe Burrow and Nick Foles in his impressive career.

Khyiris Tonga — Minnesota Vikings

Landing with the Vikings in October after being waived by Chicago prior to the regular season, Tonga finished 2022 ranked as the 13th-ranked defensive tackle in the league with a 77.9 Pro Football Focus grade. Tonga made 28 total tackles in Minnesota along with four pass deflections and a sack, emerging as a leader on defense for the NFC north champion Vikings.

PFF continues to love Tonga’s game, listing him as a potential breakout candidate in 2023 as he sets to begin the season as Minnesota’s second string nose tackle.

Sione Takitaki — Cleveland Browns

Despite tearing his ACL in week 13, Takitaki finished third on the Browns with a career-high 71 total tackles over 12 games at linebacker in 2022.

Takitaki signed a 1 year, $2.5 million extension with Cleveland in the offseason and is projected to return to the starting defense this Sunday without any injury limitations.

Dax Milne — Washington Commanders

Milne served as Washington’s primary return specialist in 2022, where he recorded an NFL-best 40 punt returns for a 7.8 yard average, called for 22 fair catches and returned 15 kickoffs as well. The seventh-rounder also caught six passes with a touchdown as a slot receiver.

Now in his third professional season, Milne survived expansive and intense preseason competition to make the Commanders’ roster once again, returning as the team’s main punt returner with the chance to hold more responsibility as a pass-catcher under new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.

Jaren Hall — Minnesota Vikings

Hall made a nice first impression at Vikings training camp but wasn’t given a true opportunity to shine until the preseason finale, where the fifth round rookie got the start at quarterback and finished 16-27 in passing for 178 yards with a touchdown, interception and having led three scoring drives.

Hall earned a spot on Minnesota’s 53-man roster as the third string quarterback behind Pro Bowler Kirk Cousins and backup Nick Mullens. While Hall likely won’t see any playing time in 2023, he finds himself in prime position to spend the year marinating within the Viking offense, learning from established veteran Cousins and getting ready to compete for the starting job in 2024 should Minnesota choose to move on from Cousins this winter.

Blake Freeland — Indianapolis Colts

An All-American at BYU, the rookie fourth rounder will begin the year as the Colts’ backup right tackle after flashing at times in the preseason.

Although he may not make an immediate impact in Indianapolis, Freeland’s freakish athleticism and high ceiling should definitely entrench him in the team’s long-term plans for the offensive line.

Chris Brooks — Miami Dolphins

Facing the challenge of making an NFL roster after going undrafted, Chris Brooks was nothing short of explosive in the preseason, posting 148 all purpose yards with three total touchdowns out of the backfield for Miami.

Brooks’ preseason performance was enough for the Dolphins to keep him on their 53-man roster heading into the season, currently listed as the team’s fourth-string running back but with potential to climb higher amid the generally unproven group.

Zayne Anderson — Green Bay Packers

The special teams ace Anderson spent the past two seasons on Kansas City’s practice squad while appearing in seven total games, earning a Super Bowl ring in the process.

Anderson signed with Buffalo in the offseason but was waived on the final day of cuts, only to be picked up immediately by the Packers and placed on the team’s 53-man roster. Anderson is expected to start as a special teamer but could end up seeing time at safety.

Matt Bushman — Kansas City Chiefs

Bushman spent the entire 2022 campaign on the Chiefs’ practice squad — where he ended up once again following this year’s preseason — only to be elevated to the active roster Thursday to help keep Kansas City’s Travis Kelce-less tight end room afloat for week one.

Bushman has appeared in two regular season games thus far while spending the majority of his career on the Las Vegas and Kansas City practice squads.

Andy Reid — Kansas City Chiefs

The former BYU offensive lineman and graduate assistant continued his Hall of Fame coaching career in 2022 by piloting Kansas City to a 14-3 record and Super Bowl LVII victory over Philadelphia, leading the NFL in total yards (7,220) and scoring (29.2 PPG) along the way.

Reid begins his 25th season as an NFL head coach in the league’s opener Thursday night against Detroit. Reid is likely to pass Tom Landry for the fourth-most coaching victories in league history this season while attempting to capture another Super Bowl ring with the Chiefs.

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