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After big NFL draft weekend, BYU now has a solid foundation to build on

BYU had its best draft class in two decades with five players selected in the 2021 draft. That bodes well for the future.

(Jeff Haynes | AP Images for Panini) BYU quarterback Zach Wilson holds a New York Jets jersey after being selected second overall by the team in the first round of the NFL football draft, Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Cleveland.

Throughout the 2020 season, as BYU continued to blow out opponents and notch win after win, the question arose: Were the Cougars that good or was their success a result of a watered down schedule?

There’s no denying the schedule change had a hand in bolstering BYU’s 11-1 finish, but now there’s also no refuting that this was the best BYU team in 20 years.

After struggling to churn out as much NFL talent as in the 1980s and 1990s — particularly since going independent — BYU produced its best NFL Draft class since 2002.

Aided by a late flurry of picks toward the end of the seventh round, five total former Cougars were selected by different NFL teams. Add in the seven who signed with teams as free agents and another who received a mini camp invite, and there could possibly up to a dozen former BYU players on NFL rosters during the 2021 season.

“Whether it was the guys who got drafted or those who are signing deals after the draft, I’m equally excited for the opportunities that await them in the NFL,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said in a statement. “We have talented football players and great people in our program, and I know they will all represent themselves and BYU well. It was an honor to coach them.”

Zach Wilson led the group as the No. 2 overall pick, selected by the New York Jets, on Thursday. It was the highest selected BYU player since defensive end Ezekiel Ansah was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the first round with the fifth overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft.

BYU’S NFL-BOUND PLAYERS

Drafted

Zach Wilson, QB, first round, New York Jets

Brady Christensen, OL, third round, Carolina Panthers

Khyiris Tonga, DL, seventh round, Chicago Bears

Chris Wilcox, CB, seventh round, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Dax Milne, WR, seventh round, Washington Football Team

Free agents

Matt Bushman, TE, Las Vegas Raiders

Chandon Herring, OL, Tennessee Titans

Tristen Hoge, OL, New York Jets

Zayne Anderson, DB, Kansas City Chiefs

Zac Dawe, DL, Atlanta Falcons

Isaiah Kaufusi, LB, Indianapolis Colts

Troy Warner, DB, Los Angeles Rams

Kavika Fonua, DB, Carolina Panthers*

Micah Simon, WR, Carolina Panthers**

* Received mini camp invite

** Finished BYU career in 2019, signed following BYU’s Pro Day in March

Wilson became the 10th BYU player in the history of the program to be picked in the first round of the regular, annual NFL Draft.

It was reported Wilson will sign a four-year, $35.1 million, fully guaranteed deal that includes a $22.9 million signing bonus. Wilson’s rookie contract will also include a fifth-year option.

On Friday, former Cougar offensive tackle Brady Christensen was selected by the Carolina Panthers with the sixth pick of the third round (70th overall). The following day, defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga, cornerback Chris Wilcox and wide receiver Dax Milne were each selected in the seventh round.

Tonga was taken by the Chicago Bears, Wilcox by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and wide receiver Dax Milne by the Washington Football Team.

Christensen played a big role in Wilson’s success, protecting the BYU quarterback’s blindside while earning the highest grade (96.0) by Pro Football Focus in 2020. Milne put up a 1,000-yard season in what ended up being a breakout year for the junior. The duo of best friends Wilson and Milne were a big part of BYU’s No. 8 ranking in passing offense.

As a 6-foot-2, 326-pound nose tackle, Tonga set the tone for a defense that was ranked 10th in the nation.

“I am really happy for Khyiris, Chris and Dax,” Sitake said. “I am so proud of Khyiris and all he has achieved in his life and for our football program. Chris has done a great job developing as a cover corner and has the size and speed to play at the next level. Dax has impressed and gotten better every year culminating with a tremendous All-America season in 2020. I love each of these guys and look forward to following their careers in the NFL.”

Immediately after the draft ended, Matt Bushman, Chandon Herring, Tristen Hoge, Zayne Anderson, Zac Dawe, Isaiah Kaufusi and Troy Warner signed undrafted free agent contracts with teams. On Sunday, Kavika Fonua was invited to a mini camp by the Carolina Panthers.

With this amount of Cougars trying to make rosters in the fall, the number of BYU players in the NFL could nearly double from the total in 2020 (13).

Now that BYU has answered the main question surrounding the historic 2020 season, the next question that begs to be asked is, how the Cougars will build off this success?

One thing is for sure, though. BYU’s reputation for producing NFL talent is on the way up again, and that bodes well going forward.

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