Big Ten off to its worst NFL Draft start ever: What does it mean?

Gregory Shamus

One future legend and leader was taken in Thursday's first round, a center selected with the penultimate pick. What do we make of the Big Ten's talent supply?

The Big Ten was nearly shut out in the first round of Thursday's NFL Draft, with the Dallas Cowboys taking Wisconsin center Travis Frederick with the 31st pick. How did this happen? What does it mean for the future of Big Ten football?


No. 31 is the lowest first appearance for the Big Ten since the NFL Draft began in 1936.

The Big Ten has been flirting with a shutout for five years, only to run up the score with late picks. Four Big Ten players were drafted in the first round of the 2012 Draft, but none before Iowa offensive tackle Riley Reiff was taken at No. 23. Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt was the first of five Big Ten players selected in the 2011 first round at No. 11. Just three Big 10 players were taken in 2010's first round, the first at No. 13.

The Big Ten has now gone five years without a top-10 selection.

The shutout had never occurred, though, and late picks have given the league a healthy margin in most years. In 1998, only two Big Ten players -- No. 3 pick Charles Woodson and No. 4 pick Curtis Enis -- were taken in the first. There were only two Big Ten players selected in 1983's first round, though the inclusion of modern Big Ten teams would increase that number to five.

Purdue quarterback Mike Phipps was the only Big Ten first-rounder in 1970, the last time that only one Big Ten player was taken in the first round.

But if you're going to find the last Big Ten first-round shutout, you have to travel back to 1953, the year before Michigan State joined the conference. All 13 first-round selections went by without a Big Ten player coming off the board. Purdue end Bernie Flowers was the first pick of the second round, meaning a Big Ten player was still picked in that year before one was in 2013.

Reason No. 1: Recruiting and demographics

Just five of 32 first-rounders Thursday night hail from the Big Ten footprint: Central Michigan tackle Eric Fisher, Syracuse tackle Justin Pugh, Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert, and the aforementioned Frederick. As you can see, four of those five players played for non-Big Ten programs. Just two -- Frederick and Floyd -- held offers from top Big Ten programs. Eifert, an Indiana native, held offers from Indiana and Purdue as well as Northwestern and Minnesota. Fisher and Pugh, both two-star recruits, held no Big Ten offers.

So yes, the problem was partly due to a failure of Big Ten teams -- or virtually everyone else, for that matter -- to identify three of the five players as potential top NFL players while they were in high school. Floyd, who was the nation's top defensive tackle and one of the top 10 high school prospects in the country, lived in Philadelphia and had no real allegiance to Penn State or other Big Ten schools. And Wisconsin successfully converted Frederick to a player that NFL Network's Mike Mayock gave a third-round grade. Had the Big Ten done a better job of identifying and keeping local recruits, this post would not exist.

But there is a bigger problem here, as well: The Big Ten footprint is only generating five first-round recruits. That ties the Pac-12 and Big East for lowest number of first round recruits within the conference's footprint. The Big 12 and ACC each generated six, while the SEC had a whopping 15 (Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida, and South Carolina each counted for multiple conferences). The small discrepancy between the five non-SEC conferences isn't of particular importance in and of itself, but the recruits near the Rust Belt certainly is: 21 of 32 first round picks come from south of the Mason-Dixon line or west of the Great Plains. And while Southern schools can pitch warm weather and national championships to northern recruits like Floyd, the Big Ten has largely stayed within its footprint, refusing to fight on the nation's most fertile ground.

It's a recipe for disaster, as Urban Meyer has already said.

Reason No. 2: Style of play

The SEC has taken the torch for pro-style, smashmouth template that had been the calling card of the Ten Year War. The Big Ten, meanwhile, has shifted to run-heavy offenses predicated not on between-the-tackles muscle but rather option concepts and mobile quarterbacks. Even with the advent of pistol-based offenses in the NFL and the rise of Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, most of the Big Ten's best skill players aren't viable pros. The conference's best quarterback in 2012, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez, was only a junior and has almost no chance of playing as a quarterback in the NFL regardless. The other top quarterback, Denard Robinson, is trying to catch on as a wide receiver. Le'Veon Bell and Monte Ball, the conference's top running backs, could not break the glass ceiling keeping all halfbacks out of the 2013 first round.

The lack of passing is having the same effect on Big Ten defensive backs. The winner of the conference's award for best defensive back, Iowa's Micah Hyde, is likely to fall into Saturday's final rounds and move to safety in the pros. The same Saturday prognostication applies for Michigan State's Johnny Adams, who joined Hyde on the all-conference team. Both are solid in run support but knocked for lacking coverage skills.

Reason No. 3: The best of the B1G stayed in school

Thursday night's B1G drama would have never occurred if the conference's best pro prospect, Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan, had done what everyone expected and went pro. Lewan was a potential top pick and a virtual certainty to break the Big Ten's top 10 drought. But Lewan opted to stay for one more season in Ann Arbor instead.

Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, not a likely first-rounder but arguably the conference's best wide receiver, is playing one more season in Madison. He'll be joined by Jacob Pedersen, the conference's top tight end. Kenny Bell, another top receiver who does have the ability to crack the top 32 eventually, stayed home and might not enter the NFL until 2015. At least as modern Big Ten standards go, there is plenty of talent returning next season.

Reason No. 4: Luck

Even with all of that, the top pick in the draft was a two-star recruit from Rochester Hills, Michigan who didn't even receive top billing among the offensive line recruits at his Mid-America Conference program. The fifth pick was a guy from Ghana who got cut from the BYU basketball team twice before stumbling onto a football field for the first time. Lane Johnson was a high school quarterback and JUCO transfer. In one of the strangest first rounds of all time, guys simply slipped through the cracks.

On the other side of the coin, players like Ohio State defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins and Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short had been considered potential first-rounders through February and March, only to slip into the second day.


People aren't moving to the Rust Belt in any significant numbers. The Big Ten's attempt to improve demographics by expanding south and east appear to have been stopped by the ACC last week. Other expansion targets previously mentioned -- Oklahoma, Kansas, and Vanderbilt -- do nothing to improve those prospects.

There is certainly a danger of overreacting to one round of one draft, but with the number of Big Ten first rounders steadily declining over the last decade, the conference's football programs have to better identify local talent and compete for Southern or Western recruits to get back in the game.

Urban Meyer was right. A Big Ten recruiting revolution is necessary.

More from SB Nation:

NFL draft results: First-round picks and analysis

The NFL draft's best available players

The Drafty Hour: First-round reactions

Recapping the NFL Draft's Day 1 trades

What does your team need? Breaking down every team

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