The Big Ten hasn’t seen its conference on top of the NFL Draft in over a decade. Year after year, the SEC, ACC and even the Pac-12 and the Big 12 have shown up the Midwest schools on draft weekend.
However, some of those woes have a chance to change this year. I don’t see the Big Ten having more players drafted than the SEC, but it’s fair to say the conference is under-appreciated going into the 2016 class. The Big Ten East is going to dominate the headlines with quarterback prospects like Christian Hackenberg and Connor Cook. However, the Big Ten West has its sleepers and studs, too. So, who are they? Here’s a good starting point and some names to know.
Northwestern - Inside NU
(Analysis by Josh Rosenblat)
Dan Vitale, FB/TE/HB (senior): He was the most underutilized weapon in Northwestern's offense over the past few seasons. Vitale plays the "superback" position, which is pretty much a tight end who also moves into the backfield for blocking and pass-catching purposes. The NFL is using more players who can fill multiple voids like this. A high school running back, Vitale reportedly ran a 4.4 40 at an indoor workout at Northwestern in 2013. He has mostly been used as a pass-catcher at Northwestern, providing matchup problems for linebackers and defensive backs with his speed and 6'2, 235-pound frame.
Dean Lowry, DE (senior): At 6'6 and 280 pounds, Dean Lowry has the makings of a really solid NFL defensive end. While not quite J.J. Watt, Lowry has a penchant for breaking up passes at the line of scrimmage. He'll need a big 2015 to get on the draft radar as his sack production fell last year.
Christian Jones, WR (senior): Christian Jones led Northwestern in receiving as a sophomore and junior before missing all of 2014 with a torn ACL. A strong, physical receiver who's done most of his damage in the slot, the 6'3 Jones has solid hands. The biggest question marks will be his health and speed.
Nebraska - Corn Nation
(Analysis by Jon Johnston)
Alex Lewis, OT (senior): Lewis earned a Big Ten Honorable Mention last season. He has decent size at 6'6, 310 pounds, but probably needs a little more weight to be an NFL tackle. He needs to improve strength, consistency and football awareness, but he has the physical tools to become a mid-rounder.
Zach Sterup, OT (senior): Sterup has good size at 6'8, 320 pounds, but he really needs to be consistent this season to be considered as a late-round draft pick. Some concern over knee injuries suffered in 2014.
Maliek Collins, DT (junior): Collins is going to be a star this season, and whether he's eligible for the draft ... well, Nebraska fans will hope he returns for his senior season. He isn't big for a DT (6-2, 300) and isn't going to overpower most blockers, but he is very quick off the ball. Great foot movement and football awareness. We'll see how he does against double-teams this season.
Wisconsin - Bucky's 5th Quarter
(Analysis by Jake Kocorowski)
Corey Clement, RB (junior): Clement will get the bulk of the carries this year after Melvin Gordon left for the NFL with no defined No. 2 back behind him. The 5'11, 219-pound junior possesses a combination of power and speed. When he hits the holes opened up by his offensive line, he bounces off of would-be tacklers, averaging 6.5 yards per carry in 2014. He will have to carry the load for Wisconsin's running game this year and take on more responsibilities in the passing game, but he has the opportunity to etch his name in Badger football lore this year.
Michael Caputo, S (senior): Caputo emerged two seasons ago to anchor on an attacking defense. He's a smart, sure tackler who stuffs the run. He also improved his pass defense between his redshirt sophomore and junior years. He'll have to continue his steadiness against the pass to help lead a veteran secondary in 2015. He's a tough kid who could make an impact on an NFL team as a heavy and reliable hitter in the secondary.
Vince Biegel, OLB (junior): Biegel jumped from being a sub package player in 2013 to a force to be reckoned with on the field last season. He's explosive off the line and has a high motor, which garnered him 16.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks -- good for first and second on the team in those categories, respectively. His college game should translate well to the pro game as a 3-4 backer.
Illinois - The Champaign Room
(Analysis by Jim Vainisi)
Jihad Ward, DE (senior): Ward is Illinois’ best shot at ending the program’s two-year NFL Draft drought. The senior defensive end has the potential to be a second- or third-round pick with his combination of speed, power, and all-around athleticism on the outside. Even if his on-field production doesn’t improve in 2015, Ward could still be a late-round draft pick given his relatively raw talent and upside.
Wes Lunt, QB (junior): Wes Lunt can make just about every throw in the book when he has time in the pocket. He has occasional trouble throwing the ball downfield (arm strength), but he makes up for it with his accuracy on short and intermediate passes. The 6’5 junior is everything that scouts look for in potential NFL quarterbacks from a physical standpoint.
The only red flag with Lunt -- and it’s a big one -- is his ability to stay healthy. He’s never made it through an entire season without missing games due to injury. Lunt would need to put up huge numbers for him to consider entering the draft early, but it’s a possibility.
Minnesota - The Daily Gopher
(Analysis by The Daily Gopher)
Eric Murray, CB (senior): Murray is a lockdown, cover corner with good length and speed. Mel Kiper has him as the No. 2 senior corner right now. He does not have a lot of interceptions (one in his career) or breakups (officially 17 passes defended), but that is mostly because teams don't throw to his side of the field very often.
Murray has started every game at corner as a sophomore and junior. He thrives in press-man coverage, but rarely plays zone. His ball skills once the pass is in the air need to improve. My guess right now would be a second- or third-round guy, who could go higher with a good senior season.
Briean Boddy-Calhoun, CB (senior): Boddy-Calhoun was a JUCO transfer to Minnesota, played as a sophomore and then tore his ACL in the second game of his junior season. He received a medical redshirt and had an outstanding junior year in 2014 with 5 interceptions (plus a sixth on a two-point conversion) and nine pass breakups. He has good speed and athleticism with a knack for big plays in big games (interceptions against TCU, Missouri, Iowa and a key forced fumble to secure a win at Nebraska). He's got good speed and athleticism but lacks ideal height.
Iowa - Black Heart Gold Pants
(Analysis by Ross Binder)
Austin Blythe, OL (senior): Blythe is Iowa's most experienced starter on the offensive line, a four-year starter when healthy. That sort of experience and productivity is basically catnip for the NFL, but the fact that he's an interior lineman rather than a potential tackle will probably depress his stock somewhat. On the bright side, he has experience at both center and guard.
Drew Ott, DL (senior): Along with Blythe, Ott is probably Iowa's best shot at having a player drafted next year. He's a multi-year starter on the defensive line and was an All-Big Ten (second team) performer a year ago. If his senior season is as good or better than his junior year, I'd be shocked if his name wasn't called in one of the middle rounds of the draft. Like some of his Iowa predecessors (Mitch King, Karl Klug), his biggest problem is that he's a bit of a tweener at 6-4, 272 pounds.
Purdue - Hammer and Rails
(Analysis by Travis Miller)
Frankie Williams, CB (senior): Williams is likely the best player on the defense, a second team All-Big Ten selection last year. He excelled as a punt returner. This will be his fourth season as a starter. He will leave Purdue with over 200 tackles and will probably have more than 10 interceptions. If he gets to 12, that would be third all-time at Purdue (he currently has seven).
Robert Kugler, C, (senior): Kugler’s father is the former offensive line coach for the Steelers and the current head coach at UTEP. One of the most consistent linemen in the Big Ten, he's entering his fourth year as a starter. He's had to be the anchor for an offensive line that has been completely rebuilt over the last three seasons.