With the NFL Draft in the rearview mirror, it is time to look ahead to the upcoming 2021 football season. 14 former BYU Cougars found NFL homes over the weekend, be it via the draft, being signed as an undrafted free agent or receiving a minicamp invitation.
Of course, the headline was Zach Wilson becoming the face of the New York Jets overnight and getting taken second overall by the embattled franchise, the highest any BYU player has ever been selected.
Four other BYU alums were drafted, Brady Christensen went in the third round to the Panthers. Khyiris Tonga, Chris Wilcox and Dax Milne were all selected in the seventh round by the Bears, Buccaneers and Washington respectively.
Nine other Cougars were either signed as undrafted free agents or invited to mini camp. Which ones have the best path to playing time early in the 2021 season?
File this under the “no duh” section. Wilson was taken second overall by the Jets for one reason and one reason only- to be the savior of the franchise and be the quarterback of the present and future in New York.
The Jets canned their previous coaching staff and then traded former No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold to Carolina, giving the new staff a clean slate with which to work. Their first item of business in the draft was to address the quarterback position, which they did in BYU’s former signal caller.
Wilson will likely be given the keys to Robert Saleh and Mike LaFleur’s offense right from the start. The only other quarterbacks on the Jets’ roster are Mike White and James Morgan, neither of whom have taken a snap in a regular season NFL game.
Christensen projects as a solid future starter at tackle. However, in Carolina, the starting left and right tackle positions are pretty locked up in two former second-round picks in Greg Little and Taylor Moton. Be that as it may, that does not mean Christensen will not see the field. Despite the evolution of offenses, depth at tackle is still highly valued.
Some teams even incorporate a third tackle into their offense during obvious running downs or short-yardage situations. Tackles are valued also because they protect the most valuable asset on the entire team- the quarterback. Christensen protected Zach Wilson better than any other tackle protected his quarterback in college football in 2020. The coaches will find a way to utilize his athleticism and high football IQ right away in Carolina.
Tonga went to the Bears in the seventh round and to an ideal situation in Chicago. Bilal Nichols is the projected starter at nose guard, after playing all 16 games with 5.0 sacks in 2020.
Given the nature of the nose guard position, Tonga will likely get several looks during the preseason against quality NFL linemen. Most teams carry at least two nose guards, sometimes three, to spell the starter for a few snaps in a game over the course of the season. It’s also a position where injuries are frequent, since contact is made on every play. Eddie Goldman is Tonga’s biggest competition for the backup nose guard spot, and he did not play at all in 2020 after opting out due to COVID concerns.
After not being drafted, Bushman signed with the Las Vegas Raiders. Before his injury, Bushman was clearly one of the best tight ends in college football, racking up over 500 receiving yards in three straight years in Provo. Teams were reluctant to use a draft pick on the tight end after a long road to recovery. However, he may make the Raiders look like geniuses early on.
The Raiders already have a solid tight end in Darren Waller, who is coming off of a career-high 1,196 yards and nine touchdowns, catching passes from Derek Carr. After Waller, the depth craters at the position. No other tight end had more than 140 receiving yards and future Hall of Famer Jason Witten officially retired, leaving a whole in the tight end group.
There is a clear path for Bushman to snag a roster spot and work his way into the rotation. Aside from Waller, no other tight end jumps off the page with experience or past production. Bushman has the ability and opportunity to rise up the depth chart quickly.