For a conference that produced last year’s national champion, the Big Ten has been disappointing in terms of the NFL Draft. Last April marked the 20th straight year that no Big Ten quarterback was selected in the first round. But times are changing, and the Big Ten is now likely to have three quarterbacks taken in the first round in 2016. The rest of the draft will run through Ohio State with five, possibly six, projected first-round selections.
However, it’s not all about OSU. There are plenty of prospects within the Big Ten East who could find themselves labeled the gems of draft weekend.
Michigan -- Maize n Brew
(Analysis by Anthony Broome)
Joe Bolden, LB (senior): Bolden is the best linebacker in a deep position group. He is a big hitter with a nose for the football. He is already talented but could be in for a huge breakout under new coordinator D.J. Durkin
Wayne Lyons, CB (senior): Lyons is a transfer from Stanford who figures to be one of the top cornerbacks on the roster. He is a perfect fit on Michigan’s defense and could thrive with the new coaching staff. He is bigger and more physical than any other corner on the roster.
Michigan State -- The Only Colors
(Analysis by Joe Touhey)
Connor Cook, QB (senior): Cook has amassed a 23-3 record in two years as a starter, won two bowl games and led MSU to the best offensive season in program history last year. He still struggles some with consistent footwork. Cook can also make some poor decisions in big moments, like interceptions against both Stanford and Baylor in those bowl games. Still, Cook’s resiliency and prototypical quarterback measurables make him an elite prospect.
Shilique Calhoun, DE (senior): As a sophomore, Calhoun broke out with 7.5 sacks and three defensive touchdowns en route to being named Big Ten defensive lineman of the year. As a junior, Calhoun didn’t increase his pass rush production as much as hoped, getting eight sacks. Calhoun is a well-rounded defensive end with the ability to both stop the run and get after the passer. He’s everything a team wants out of a DE in a 4-3 scheme.
Jack Conklin, OT (junior): MSU’s offensive line allowed just 11 sacks in 13 games last year, and Conklin was a major reason why the pass protection was so solid. Conklin was a low-profile recruit as a zero-star prospect. Since then, however, he’s started 26 games (23 protecting Cook’s blindside). Conklin also has great size at 6'6, 317 pounds.
Indiana -- The Crimson Quarry
(Analysis by Trevor Sikkema)
Nate Sudfeld, QB (senior): The Big Ten’s quarterback draft class is deep, but Sudfeld could be near the top of that list. He’ll be losing his top three receiving targets from 2014, so it’s an uphill climb. But draft stock doesn’t always go parallel with stats. Scouts will just want to see some development. His decision making and ability to read the defense beyond the initial play design are his two focuses this year.
Jason Spriggs, OT (senior): Spriggs is an athletic run blocker who was a key part of Tevin Coleman’s 2,000-yard campaign last season. He thrives with his quick feet and ability to close off the corners for speed rushers. He needs to work on his consistency when engaging rushers, but his athletic style of blocking will be coveted.
Rutgers -- On the Banks
(Analysis by Timothy Wentz)
Leonte Carroo, WR (senior): Carroo is the only returning receiver in the Big Ten with 1,000+ receiving yards and 10+ touchdowns. Carroo doesn’t have elite size (6'0, 205 pounds) or speed, but he has great athleticism and a tremendous feel for the position. He has solid hands and works well in traffic. His numbers could drop this year with a new quarterback, but with another productive year, Carroo could be a first-round pick, especially with the way NFL teams value receivers.
Steve Longa, LB (RS junior): Longa has compiled over 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons and has been one of the most consistent playmakers for the Rutgers defense. He’s got great speed and athleticism for a linebacker. He has natural instincts. He is also versatile with experience at all three linebacker positions. He still has one year of eligibility left, but another productive year could cause the linebacker to dart for the NFL.
Darius Hamilton, DL (senior): Hamilton was a five-star prospect coming out of high school and has NFL pedigree (his dad Keith Hamilton was an All-Pro with the New York Giants). He played defensive tackle, but he’s undersized for the position (6'3, 255 pounds) and would likely have to move to defensive end in the NFL. Due to his size, he’s limited strength-wise, but he uses his quickness to beat bigger offensive linemen. He could be an intriguing prospect for certain teams because of his versatility.
Penn State -- Black Shoe Diaries
(Analysis by Nick Polak and Bill DiFilippo)
Christian Hackenberg, QB (junior): Hackenberg has been projected as an NFL draft pick from the day he set foot on campus. He throws an excellent deep ball and has the arm strength to put the ball anywhere he wants. He can fit the ball into extremely tight windows and puts ferocious velocity on his passes. Last season was a struggle for Hack. Disappointing offensive line play, coupled with an extremely green receiving corps, forced him to play on the run for most of the season. His numbers took a hit as a result and his accuracy began to falter as time went on. Hack looked like his old self in the Pinstripe Bowl, after a few weeks off.
Anthony Zettel, DE (senior): The thing that makes Zettel such an interesting prospect is his versatility. He shows off his spectacular strength -- by tackling dead trees out of the ground in the offseason -- and uses the fact that he’s a fast and technically sound to destroy interior offensive linemen. In the NFL, he projects best as a 3-4 defensive end.
Austin Johnson, DT (junior): Johnson could end up being the best NFL prospect on Penn State’s defense, with the potential to be a devastating nose tackle. He clocks in at 6'4, 323 pounds but moves like someone much smaller. His lateral agility is terrifying, which would certainly compensate for any deficiencies he has with raw power. The big question with Johnson is whether he’s just really good or if he’s really good because he lines up next to one of the best defensive linemen in America.
Jordan Lucas, S (senior): Like Zettel, Lucas is a versatile athlete who can play in just about any spot in his unit. Lucas -- the first person to commit to the Nittany Lions after the NCAA’s sanctions against the school -- got better at cornerback every year, to the point that he was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection in 2014. He's been the best player in a secondary that allowed the lowest completion percentage last year. Lucas decided to move to safety for his senior season, partly because this is where he projects to play at the next level. He has the swagger and aggressiveness to do well at the position, and he’s really good in coverage. The knock on him is his ability as a tackler. If he can work on that, he could possibly creep into Day 2 of the draft.
Ohio State -- Land-Grant Holy Land
(Analysis by Christopher Jason)
Joey Bosa, DE (junior): There is not much to say about Bosa other than when it is all said and done, he could be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Bosa would have likely been a top-five selection if he could have declared at the end of last season. Former Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage noted that one NFL team evaluated linemen based on their performance against Bosa.
Cardale Jones, QB (junior): Jones is one of the most interesting NFL prospects in a long, long time. He entered last season as the third-string quarterback and finished the year by leading the Buckeyes to a Big Ten title, a playoff win over Alabama and a National Championship. Jones is the most NFL-ready of the three possible starting quarterbacks. He stands 6’5, 250 pounds and makes the scouts drool with his rocket arm. If he wins the job and performs as expected, he has a chance to be a top-10 pick.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB (junior): The St. Louis product started the season slower than most expected but finished by rushing for an absurd 696 yards and eight touchdowns in the final three games of the season. He will head into the 2015 season as a Heisman front-runner and should eclipse 1,500 yards on the ground. Elliott has an elite mix of size, speed and power that should make him a first-round pick if he forgoes his senior season for the 2016 NFL Draft.
Darron Lee, LB (RS sophomore): Lee exploded onto the scene in 2014 to become Ohio State’s most consistent playmaker on defense. Lee is in the Ryan Shazier/Shaq Thompson mold, one who can excel in multiple areas from the linebacker position. He excels in coverage and rushing the passer, and is solid against the run. If Lee builds on his 2014 campaign, he will be one of the most feared linebackers in the country and a first-round selection if he decides to leave Columbus.
Maryland -- Testudo Times
(Analysis by Pete Volk)
Brad Craddock, K (senior): The senior kicker from Australia won the Groza Award last year and has made tremendous growth after struggling with short kicks and extra points his first year. He worked with Matt Stover, which is where his growth started, and now he might be Maryland’s best player.
Sean Davis, CB (senior): Great athlete from a small DC high school. Davis made an impact right away as a safety, starting a few games as a true freshman and then holding down a starting job ever since. He switched to cornerback midway through last year and thrived, and he helps make one of the best secondaries in the conference. Physical player with good instincts.
William Likely, CB (junior): The junior cornerback was Gatorade High School Player of the Year in Florida as a junior, but didn’t get an offer to any of the big local schools because of his height (5'7). That will still be an issue in the NFL, but he’s a terrific athlete who is one of the best corners in the country. He has proven time and again he can cover receivers nearly a foot taller than him.
A.J. Hendy, S (senior): Senior safety and former four-star recruit who was unable to hold a starting job due to injury, suspension, etc. Hendy finally gets his chance this year, so he could sneak onto draft boards with a strong season, because he has the talent. He won the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week award two years ago against West Virginia.