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Could BYU’s Matt Bushman be the next Day 3 tight end steal?

The Rams do not need a tight end, but every team could use a good steal

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 09 Liberty at BYU Photo by Boyd Ivey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If you don’t know anything about the NFL draft this year, here’s probably the most fun player that many are tracking: BYU quarterback Zach Wilson. In the span of a few months in late December, Wilson went from a fringe pro prospect to garnering comparisons to Patrick Mahomes and convincing some analysts that he’s a better prospect than the picture-perfect Trevor Lawrence and should go number one overall.

Now if you did know enough about the draft to know who Wilson is, then you could still be like me and only be finding out today that Wilson wasn’t even playing with his best offensive weapon last season.

No, Wilson’s top target was receiver Dax Milne, a “maybe day three” prospect who had also struggled in his college career prior to 2020. His number one tight end was Isaac Rex (overlooked part of Wilson’s game is that he threw 20 touchdowns to guys with an “x” in their name), but he only caught 37 passes ... 12 of which went for scores.

Now imagine if senior tight end Matt Bushman hadn’t ruptured his Achilles prior to the season, what could Wilson have done then? (And what if Bushman had changed his name to Bushmax? Bonus points, that’s what.)

Bushman started his career at BYU in 2017, when he was already 21 years old, because he had gone on mission for two years after high school. A three-star recruit, Bushman was more of a receiver when he elected to play at BYU but he bulked up over his two years away and not only returned as a tight end ... but as an exceptional one.

Before his first season of college football, coaches were already talking up the return of Bushman from his church mission.

Bushman, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound tight end, quickly became the star of the March camp. He was especially effective in the rain at LaVell Edwards Stadium, catching four passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns in the scrimmage and two other passes for 22 yards and a TD in the skeleton portion of the practice.

He has continued that play in preseason training camp, so much so that when his name is mentioned to coaches Kalani Sitake, Ty Detmer and Steve Clark, they smile.

“You can tell there is something special about him,” Sitake said Monday.

Bushman and fellow recruit Moroni Laulu-Pututau were the talk of BYU’s camp, but Bushman was the one who eventually followed through as a potentially elite NFL prospect one day. His history as a star baseball player is also something that seems to be more closely associated with quality football play each passing year.

“They have always been good at pass-catching, running routes,” Clark said. “They have improved their blocking. … And when we grade them, they are grading high, and they have a lot more production. So that’s why they are where they are [on the two-deep]. They are good players.”

Asked to name his favorite targets after a couple weeks of training camp, quarterback Tanner Mangum mentioned Bushman and Laulu-Pututau.

“They just have good feel, are good at finding holes, good at getting open,” he said. “They are big targets. … It is nice having two guys like that who can really stretch the field and make it hard on the defense.”

Bushman appears poised to make the biggest impact on offense for a freshman at BYU since Mangum two years ago. The quarterback said he spent a lot of time working with Bushman in the offseason to develop chemistry and understanding.

“He uses his speed well to create separation against linebackers and safeties, and then he also has a good feel,” Mangum said. “He is good at finding the soft spots in the defense, finding holes, finding ways to flatten off a route here or keep it high there. He just kinda knows where he needs to be.”

Bushman, also an all-state baseball player in high school, joined the BYU baseball team after spring camp and backed up Brock Hale, Keaton Kringlen and Kyle Dean in the outfield.

Though he was older than most of the players on the field, Bushman did come out as a rather dominant force at tight end. At least between the end zones.

Bushman caught 49 passes for 520 yards as a freshman.

29 passes for 511 yards as a sophomore.

47 passes for 688 yards as a junior.

He did so with Tanner Mangum and Joe Critchlow as his quarterbacks in 2017, followed by two seasons by Wilson that would be forgettable if it weren’t for having an elite season to compare them to eventually. Wilson only had 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions from 2018-2019, so while some may criticize Bushman for only catching nine touchdowns in his career, it wasn’t as though anybody at BYU was able to score until 2020.

What Bushman clearly did have were fascinating hands and skills to force defenders miss after the catch. His 15 broken tackles were the second-most in college football by a tight end in 2019.

Ben Fennell tweeted that Bushman only had two drops on 140 catchable targets.

But just like how Zach Wilson compares to Mahomes because of his unique throwing abilities and arm angles, so too does Bushman seem to jump off of the tape like a tight end who can make catches that only the very best in the NFL are able to make.

Giving credit where it is due, Thor Nystrom was the person on Twitter who did the most to recruit me to the idea that Bushman is being overlooked by the media right now and other than Kyle Pitts — who could be much less of a “tight end” than Bushman — there might not be a better prospect at the position.

Bushman could have entered the 2020 draft and a solid combine might have secured his place as a day two prospect. The tight end class was considered one of the worst of modern times last year and Cole Kmet was the first player to go off of the board at his position, going 43rd to the Bears. He was the only tight end to go in round two, followed by four in round three.

Then, of course, the Rams selected Brycen Hopkins in round four, the ninth tight end off the board.

But in spite of his age, Bushman elected to play one more year at BYU and then he ruptured his Achilles before Week 1. Bushman acknowledged that he was going to be old for an NFL prospect when he was still making his decision in late 2019, but noted that Taysom Hill was 26 when he left BYU and nobody seems to be worried about Hill’s age as it relates to relevancy in the league today.

Could Bushman be of a similar value to Taysom Hill one day?

Bushman is a playmaker and he seems to have potential as a blocker and a complete tight end. Plus, the NFL rarely seems to draft its best tight ends in the first round anyway. George Kittle went in round five, Travis Kelce in round three, Darren Waller was undrafted, Mark Andrews in round three. Some of 2020’s other top tight ends included the undrafted Robert Tonyan, former four round quarterback Logan Thomas, and fourth round pick Dalton Schultz.

The Rams do not seem to need a tight end. (No team ever seems to, they always just fall into a team’s lap.) But if Bushman even comes close to his ceiling, he’ll be an incredible value given his current draft projections.

Matt Bushman, TE

6’4, 239 lbs

Bushman’s aiming for a future in the professional ranks, though he already married into the NFL family. His wife, Emily, is former pro tight end Chad Lewis’ daughter. Bushman was an honorable mention Parade High School All-American in 2013 and then served a church mission in Santiago, Chile, before joining the Cougars’ football (and baseball) squad. He was the team’s leading receiver in 2017 (49-520-10.6, three TDs), playing in all 13 games with eight starts. Bushman was BYU’s top receiver in 2018, as well, averaging a healthy 17.6 yards per reception (29-511, two TDs) while again starting eight of 13 games played. He led the team with 688 receiving yards as a junior, catching 47 passes and averaging 14.6 yards per reception with a team-high four scores in 13 games (11 starts). Bushman decided to return to school for 2020 instead of going to the NFL, but a ruptured Achilles ended his season before it began. — by Chad Reuter

Gangly pass-catching tight end coming into the 2021 draft with no 2020 tape after suffering an Achilles injury just before the season kicked off. He has good yards-per-catch numbers and quality ball skills, but is unable to separate against tight man coverage and struggles to finish contested catches. He’s a poor blocker at the point of attack. - Lance Zierlein

Pros: He demonstrates the ability to align flexed out or inline. He is a good athlete who can be a matchup problem against smaller safeties. He has good straight line speed when running 9 routes. He has a very good catch radius and displays good hands in the passing game. He demonstrates some wiggle at the top of the route and the versatility to align flexed out or in line. In the run game he is tough and willing as an inline run blocker. He also runs good routes when flexed and has good run after catch ability. He has been productive with inconsistent QB play.

Cons: As a result of his mission trip, he is a little older as a prospect at 25 and may have already reached his ceiling physically. He demonstrates willingness as an inline blocker but is light at the point of attack. Unless he develops into a starter, your #2 or #3 TE should be a good inline blocker while your starter should excel in the passing game. - TheDraftNetwork