Is BYU establishing a pipeline to the NFL for its starting left tackles?

That seems to be the case, as the Cougars’ last three starters at that all-important position that protects a quarterback’s blind side — Brady Christensen, Blake Freeland and now Kingsley Suamataia — have been selected in 2021, 2023 and 2024 drafts, respectively.

“We talk about putting guys into the NFL. I want to put as many of our guys into the league as possible. That’s their dream. Myself and the coordinators and assistant coaches, we talk to a bunch of teams about all our guys.”

—  BYU coach Kalani Sitake

That impressive streak comes after the program failed to produce a drafted NFL offensive lineman for 16 years before the Carolina Panthers took the All-American Christensen in 2021.

With the 2024 draft in the books and the only former Cougar taken this year being Suamataia, who went in the second round to the Kansas City Chiefs and is already turning some heads in the “Heart of America” with his strength and freakish athletic ability, now seems like a good time to look ahead to the 2025 draft for BYU.

Which Cougars who are exhausting their eligibility, or getting close to doing so, could hear their names called in Green Bay, Wisconsin, next year? And is an offensive lineman in the group capable of carrying on the left tackle tradition?

The easy answer is that there is not a surefire candidate to be drafted on the current roster, unlike this past year when everyone knew Suamataia was a day-one or day-two prospect. The Cougars could be in danger of not having a player taken in the draft for the first time since 2020.

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The 2019 team was wrecked by injuries at quarterback and other positions, and finished with a 7-6 record and a loss to Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl. It lacked superstars, but quarterback Zach Wilson was developing and would end up going to the New York Jets with the No. 2 pick overall in the 2021 draft.

That’s not to say the 2024 team won’t be good — just that it won’t have a lot of playmakers.

We will see.

As spring camp wrapped up on March 30, head coach Kalani Sitake said one of his priorities is to move players on to the NFL, but acknowledged that in a lot of cases the former Cougars have to go the free-agent route to prove their worth. As of Monday, seven Cougars had received free-agent opportunities: running back Aidan Robbins (Browns), tight end Isaac Rex (Lions), quarterback Kedon Slovis (Colts), linebacker Max Tooley (Texans), punter Ryan Rehkow (Chiefs), cornerback Eddie Heckard (Broncos) and linebacker AJ Vongphachanh (Jets).

“We talk about putting guys into the NFL. I want to put as many of our guys into the league as possible. That’s their dream,” Sitake said. “Myself and the coordinators and assistant coaches, we talk to a bunch of teams about all our guys.

“It is more about them getting a shot. Whether they are a free agent or a draft pick, I think there are going to be opportunities for those guys to make a roster and to be in the league,” Sitake continued. “I am just really proud of them.”

Sitake said it would be easier on him if guys played out their eligibility, but he will never stand in the way of a player who believes he’s ready.

“My job is to support them in every way possible,” he said.

Last year, Freeland (fourth round, Colts), Hall (fifth round, Vikings) and receiver Puka Nacua (fifth round, Rams) declared for the draft despite having eligibility remaining at BYU and the gambles turned out to be worth it. Hall signed a four-year, $4.1 million contract with Minnesota, earned a $279,000 signing bonus and saw some action in a couple of games, while Freeland found a home in Indianapolis and Nacua became an overnight sensation and an NFL Rookie of the Year candidate.

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It was the first time since 2002 that BYU had three players picked in the first five rounds, but that momentum waned a bit this past draft, with Suamataia as the lone draftee.

Since Sitake took over for Bronco Mendenahll in 2016, BYU has had 14 players drafted.

With mock drafts for 2025 starting to appear in various outlets, projecting BYU’s prospects is a tad premature, but we’ll give it a shot anyway.

Here, in no particular order, is a closer look at the half-dozen or so Cougars with the best chances to be drafted in 2025, along with others who can move into the mix with standout seasons:

Tyler Batty, defensive end

The 6-foot-5, 275-pound super senior considered entering the NFL draft a year ago, but decided he needed another season to hone his skills and edge-rushing ability, despite being a bit older than the typical prospect because he served a two-year church mission in Spain. Batty made our list last year, too, but didn’t quite pad his sack totals enough to warrant attention from pro scouts.

Batty also has some NIL opportunities in Provo, another reason for giving it another go. The Payson native has appeared in 40 games and registered 15 sacks and 26.5 tackles-for-loss. A second-team All-Big 12 pick in 2023, Batty will need something close to 10 sacks in 2024 to make a case for a team to use a draft pick on him.

Connor Pay, offensive line

Another older BYU prospect who is taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 is Pay, who served a church mission in Washington, D.C. The 6-foot-5, 312-pound super senior has started 34 games and appeared in 44 and is as experienced an offensive lineman as there is in the country.

He’s got some versatility to him, having started mostly at center in his four-year career to date, but also at guard. Pay is known as a solid technician with excellent feet and a good head for the game as far as providing an additional coach on the field. If he can stay healthy and show more improvement, he’s got a shot to play in the pros.

Micah Harper, safety

As detailed by the Deseret News last week, Harper’s plan was to shine in 2023 and enter the 2024 draft as a versatile safety who started his college career as a cornerback. But a second ACL injury — to a separate knee — in preseason training camp last August thwarted those plans and Harper has spent the last nine months rehabbing.

Will a history of knee injuries hamper his NFL dreams? The 5-10, 195-pounder was a freshman honorable mention All-American in 2022 and can erase any doubts with a similar season in 2024. He’s appeared in 24 games and started in 14 in his BYU career.

In 2022, Harper was BYU’s third-leading tackler with 62 takedowns, while also posting three pass breakups. He’s arguably the biggest playmaker on the defense when he’s healthy.

Caleb Etienne, offensive line

Here’s another player who was on our list last year, then struggled in 2023 and did not show the progress and moxie needed to play at the next level. But the 6-8, 315-pound transfer from Oklahoma State was able to improve as the season went on — a switch from tackle to guard seemed to help — and to his credit, he realized he wasn’t quite ready for the NFL and made the decision to return.

Coaches raved about Etienne’s improvement in spring camp, as new OL coach TJ Woods came in and supposedly worked wonders with the big guy. We’ve got him penciled in as the starter at left tackle, although Brayden Keim also has to be considered there as well.

Jakob Robinson, cornerback

Having transferred from Utah State, Robinson has become one of the better cornerbacks in school history. He’s a playmaker, with four interceptions and a pick-six in the otherwise dismal 2023 season for the BYU defense.

Robinson, an Orem High product, is also durable. He started in all 12 of BYU’s games last year, and proved to be a better-than-average tackler — combining with the departed Eddie Heckard and Kamden Garrett to give BYU a solid trio of corners.

The knock on Robinson might be his size — he’s listed at 5-11, 170 — but his speed and all the other intangibles, coupled with another standout season, should move him up on plenty of NFL draft boards.

Brayden Keim, offensive line

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Keim didn’t participate in BYU’s recently completed spring camp due to a thumb injury, but should be good to go when the season starts. It will be a huge season for him, as he hopes to follow his father, Mike Keim, into the NFL.

Mike Keim played for New Orleans and Seattle from 1991 to 1995. Brayden Keim stands at 6-9 and weighs 310 pounds, having added weight from his days as a tight end. He should be able to nail down a starting spot in 2024, at left or right tackle. He has appeared in 27 games for BYU, and started in 10.

Others who could be in the mix

Predicting outcomes a year in advance is always tricky. For instance, last year we listed Heckard as having a good chance to play in the pros, and throughout the season he did nothing but prove us correct. However, a foot injury slowed him late in the season, and kept him from doing much at the Big 12 pro days. Hence, he wasn’t drafted, despite being one of the best playmakers BYU’s defense has had in a few years.

Here’s a quick look at some others:

  • John Nelson, defensive line — An ankle injury caused him to miss the final five games of the 2023 season, and probably ensured that he would run it back one more time.
  • Weylin Lapuaho, offensive line The Utah State transfer started 10 games at guard last year and could be an early NFL draft entrant if everything goes his way in 2024.
  • Ben Bywater, linebacker — Another player who was on our list last year, before a shoulder injury cut short his 2023 season after the Kansas loss. If he regains his pre-injury form, he’s got a shot.
  • Darius Lassiter, receiver — Granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA after the 2023 season, Lassiter has the size and hands to make an NFL roster, but he needs to get a bit faster.
  • Keanu Hill, tight end — Hill made the move from wide receiver, added some pounds, and now probably has a better chance of making the NFL, checking in at 6-4 and 245 pounds and with good speed for a man that size.
  • Marque Collins, cornerback — The Weber State transfer posted more than 100 tackles as a Wildcat and should at least get an NFL tryout after BYU cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford works with him for a season.
BYU linebacker Ben Bywater (2) gets ready to run a play against Arkansas during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark. | Michael Woods, Associated Press
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