It’s that time of year once again when I get to display my pro-BYU bias and highlight one former Cougar I want the Panthers to draft. I don’t do this every year because some seasons there just aren’t any great NFL prospects coming out of Provo, but in the years I’ve recommended BYU players, I’ve nailed it.
In 2017 I advocated for running back Jamal Williams (drafted No. 134) who has now churned out 3,704 scrimmage yards and 21 touchdowns in his five-year career. In 2018 I stumped for linebacker Fred Warner (drafted No. 70) and he already has an All-Pro selection on his impeccable resume. In 2019 I highlighted linebacker Sione Takitaki (drafted No. 80) who has 20 starts and 111 tackles over his last two seasons. In 2021 I put my reputation on the line for left tackle Brady Christensen — who the Panthers actually drafted at No. 70! — and he showed promise in 480 offensive snaps over 16 games as a rookie despite coach Matt Rhule shuffling him all over the offensive line.
A lot of players selected on Day 2 and Day 3 of the draft quickly flame out, but so far I’m a perfect four-for-four on my mid-round BYU prospects. This year I’m willing to risk my hot streak by placing my bet on center James Empey.
Empey was a four-year starter and began his college career by being named a Freshman All-America in 2018 and the No. 1 freshman center by Pro Football Focus. He was a three-time nominee for the Rimington Trophy watch list which is awarded to the best center in college football, and a two-time Outland Trophy watch list nominee which is awarded to the best interior offensive lineman. In 2020 PFF ranked him as the No. 10 returning offensive lineman in the country and stated, “In two-year PFF grade, Empey is first among centers pass-blocking and third in run blocking.”
If not for an injury that cost him his last six games of the 2021 season, I think Empey would be higher than the sixth round grade most mock drafts are giving him.
The Panthers need quality and depth across the offensive line and I’ve watched enough film on Empey to know he can compete at the NFL level. He likely won’t be a star, but I can see him at least making an NFL roster and providing competent play when called upon. He would definitely provide late-round value if the Panthers could land him in the sixth or seventh round, a point in the draft when most players wash out. Pro Football Network had Carolina drafting Empey in the sixth round in one of their mock drafts.
Despite BYU being a football independent (until they enter the Big 12 in 2023, hallelujah!), Empey has faced quality competition. Over his 41 career starts he faced off against teams like No. 6 Wisconsin (a BYU road victory), Tennessee (another BYU win), Baylor (ended the season No. 5 in the country), and a total of 11 Pac-12 opponents against whom BYU had a an overall winning record. Empey called BYU’s protections and when healthy he was key to the team’s 21-4 record with two Top 20 finishes over the last two years.
There are some red flags about Empey, though. At 6-foot-4 and 303 pounds he’s on the lighter side for an interior offensive lineman. His subpar Relative Athletic Score of 2.58 is also concerning given his size. BYU is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and he chose to serve a voluntary two-year church mission and was assigned to Lisbon, Portugal. Throw in a redshirt year along with the mission and Empey’s already 25 years old. His upside is limited by his age and athleticism, but because of his experience he has little downside, too. He’s the ultimate “low-risk, moderate reward” type of older player coming out of college.
The Panthers need to add depth across the offensive line. BYU’s James Empey can do just that as low-risk late-round pick.
Let’s see if general manager Scott Fitterer has the wisdom to take my advice again and draft a BYU offensive lineman for the second year in a row.
How would you react if the Panthers took James Empey late in the draft?
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