Zach Wilson, by all accounts, will be taken very highly in the NFL Draft later this month. Most think he will be taken second overall by the New York Jets, who just traded their previous starting quarterback, Sam Darnold, to the Carolina Panthers.
When Wilson hears his name called, he will join an exclusive list of former Cougar signal callers to have their names called in a professional football draft. BYU is one of the most storied programs in college football history when it comes to quarterbacks. At the quarterback position, BYU boasts eight All-Americans, three Davey O’Brien Trophy winners and one Heisman Trophy winner.
Let’s look back at the seven quarterbacks BYU has had drafted.
Virgil Carter, 1967-Chicago Bears, 6th Round
Carter was the first great BYU quarterback. He rewrote the program’s record books over this three seasons as the starter. He eclipsed 2,000 yards passing in 1966 (which was a big deal back then). The Bears selected him 142nd overall in the sixth round.
He played just two seasons for Chicago before being traded to the Cincinnati Bengals in 1969. Between 1970 and 1971, he passed for over 1,600 yards each year with an NFL-best 62.2 percent completion percentage in 1971. He played one season for the San Diego Chargers before returning to the Bears for his final year in 1976. He finished his NFL career with 5,063 passing yards and 29 touchdowns over parts of seven years.
Gifford Nielsen, 1978- Houston Oilers, 3rd Round
Nielsen was an All-American at BYU in 1976 after throwing for 3,401 yards and 30 touchdowns. Very similar numbers to those of Zach Wilson in 2020. Given his size at 6-foot-4 and his knowledge of the game under touted coach LaVell Edwards, Nielsen was highly sought-after in the NFL.
The Oilers pulled the trigger on Nielsen in the third round in 1978. He played all 16 games for Houston in 1979. He spent most of his career as a backup or splitting time with another quarterback. He finished his career after six years, all with Houston, and become a TV analyst for the team.
Marc Wilson, 1980- Oakland Raiders, 1st Round
Wilson was the player who replaced Nielsen when he got hurt in 1977 and he never looked back. He became the first consensus All-American and led BYU to an undefeated regular season at 11-0 before falling to Indiana in the Holiday Bowl. Wilson put up enough impressive numbers to garner a first round selection from the Raiders.
In 1980, he backed up Jim Plunkett as they won the Super Bowl. Wilson battled injuries throughout his career and ended up playing in parts of 10 seasons with the Raiders and Patriots, earning another Super Bowl ring as a backup in 1984.
Jim McMahon, 1982- Chicago Bears, 1st Round
Before making history in the NFL, McMahon completely rewrote the BYU and NCAA record books for a quarterback, setting 32 NCAA records during his time in Provo. He made headlines on and off the field leading up to his very lofty draft selection in 1982. To this day, he is the highest drafted BYU quarterback in the standard NFL Draft. Zach Wilson may be breaking that in a few weeks.
McMahon was part of the legendary 1985 Bears team that dominated their way to a Super Bowl title. He earned his only Pro Bowl selection that season by tossing 2,392 yards and 15 touchdowns, both of which ended up being his career highs.
He was part of another Super Bowl run in 1996, backing up for Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre. Overall, injuries slowed him from having a legendary NFL career but he finished with solid numbers, with 18,148 yards and 100 passing touchdowns.
Steve Young, 1984- Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1st Round (Supplemental)
Young set the NCAA record for completion percentage at 71.3 percent in 1983 and led BYU to an 11-1 record. Then, he was made the first overall selection of the struggling USFL, by the Los Angeles Express. After the Express became defunct, he signed with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers after becoming the first overall pick from the draft among USFL and CFL supplemental draft.
Of course, the rest is history. The Bucs traded young to the 49ers, where he became one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. He was selected to seven Pro Bowls, named All-Pro three times and won two MVP awards, in 1992 and 1994. He owns the sixth-best passer rating in NFL history and has the fourth-most rushing yards for a signal caller. He finished with three Super Bowl rings and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005.
Ty Detmer, 1992- Green Bay Packers, 9th Round
Detmer lit up the scoreboard during his time at BYU, finishing with 59 NCAA records. He won the Heisman Trophy in 1990 after posting 5,188 passing yards and 41 touchdowns. He was praised for his intellect and football IQ. He may not have projected as an NFL star but teams wanted him for his knowledge.
The Packers took him in 1992 to back up Brett Favre. It turned out to be helpful for Favre, who praised Detmer for teaching the Hall of Fame quarterback more about reading defenses. He carved out 14 seasons in the NFL, mostly being a backup and a mentor. He started 11 games for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1996, passing for 2,911 yards and 15 scores.
John Beck, 2007- Miami Dolphins, 2nd Round
Beck racked up the yards, touchdowns and accolades at BYU. He was named 2006 Mountain West Player of the Year and a Davey O’Brien Award finalist. The Dolphins took a chance on Beck in the second round. He spent parts of six seasons in the NFL, making seven career starts between the Dolphins and Washington Redskins in 2011.
Wilson is looking to become the highest drafted quarterback in BYU history. He will find out on April 29.