2015 NFL draft primer: Big Ten has handful of top pick hopefuls
Is 2015 the year that the Big Ten snaps its lengthy and rather embarrassing draft drought, which has seen the conference unable to produce a top-10 pick since Jake Long went No. 1 overall in 2008? There are many reasons to believe that it is.
The prospects highlighted here are but a small percentage of the Big Ten's potential draft class, with a handful already emerging as potential early selections.
Illinois: Earnest Thomas, S
A strong safety -- "STAR" designation in Illinois' terminology -- Thomas has acted essentially as an extra linebacker behind what's been a rather porous front. He topped the century mark in tackles last season (101 overall) plus broke up seven passes. At 6-2 and 210 with at least adequate speed, Thomas is a guy that can get to the NFL even if he has to scratch and claw onto a roster once he's there.
Most of Indiana's fireworks, both on the field this coming season and at the next draft, figure to come from the offense -- receiver Shane Wynn and running back Tevin Coleman leading the charge there. Bennett (5-9, 186) is a name to remember on the other side of the ball, particularly for teams that go value hunting in the later rounds. He has experience at both cornerback and safety (his size probably eliminates him as an NFL safety prospect), and he led the country in passes defended last season with 21. While Bennett is not going to blow anyone away, he makes the most of what he has.
Iowa: Carl Davis, DT
There are two Hawkeyes you'll be hearing a lot about over the course of the 2014 season. The first is offensive tackle Brandon Scherrf, a tantalizing prospect capable of climbing into the top five. The other is Davis. And he might not be far behind his teammate.
The 6-5, 315-pound Davis is a brick wall for the Hawkeyes' line; a one-tech plugger who helps set the table for his teammates by occupying multiple blockers near the ball. Davis finished with 42 tackles and 1.5 sacks last season, which hardly paints a full picture of his impact. Plain and simple, there are not all that many reliable interior defensive linemen capable of standing their ground when faced with double-teams. Davis can do that and then some, with his best football still ahead of him.
Maryland: Stefon Diggs, WR
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer recently called Diggs "one of the best players in the country," and there is little question Diggs carries that type of potential. Diggs (6-0, 190) totaled more than 1,900 yards during his freshman season of 2012 and was close to the 1K plateau after just seven games last season before a broken leg downed him. The Terrapins will put him on display again in '14, during their first Big Ten season, as a return man, receiver and even a ball-carrier from time to time. That versatility combined with top-end speed might lead Diggs to declare for the draft following his junior year.
Michigan: Jake Ryan, LB
The Devins -- receiver Devin Funchess (a potential first-rounder) and quarterback Devin Gardner -- may draw the most headlines, but Ryan will be on a lot of NFL radars. A rangy 6-3, 236-pound linebacker, Ryan came back just seven months after an offseason ACL tear to rejoin the Wolverines midway through the 2013 season. He never quite cranked back up to full speed, which is what we saw in 2012 as Ryan made 88 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Ryan could work in a 4-3 defense, as he does now, or project as an attacking edge player in a 3-4 scheme. A full, injury-free season could bump Ryan into the Round 1 range.
Darqeuze Dennard's sidekick last season now steps into the spotlight himself. The 6-1, 183-pound Waynes will inherit the No. 1 cornerback job vacated by Dennard, a first-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals. Waynes is far from a Dennard carbon copy, however. Where the ex-Spartan Dennard relied on a physical, pressing style to win, Waynes does more with his length and athleticism. Michigan State still asks him to play aggressively near the line, but he's just not as advanced in that aspect of his game as Dennard was. Given that he is just entering his junior season, there is time to develop.
Waynes is but one of a plethora of potential Spartans draft picks. The best of the bunch may be defensive end Shilique Calhoun, a top-10 choice in our too-early 2015 mock draft.
Minnesota: Theiren Cockran, DE
The 6-foot-6 Cockran has added upwards of 40 pounds since arriving at Minnesota -- he's now listed at 255, a long way from the 210 he weighed upon arrival in 2011. Keeping that weight (and maybe packing on 10 or 15 more pounds) would help him nail down a future as a 4-3 defensive end. His 7.5-sack, 10 tackle-for-loss performance last season as a redshirt sophomore may not have happened without the help of Ra'Shede Hageman inside. Cockran will be a main focus for opposing offenses now, so we'll see how he responds. He is athletic enough to thrive sans Hageman's help.
Nebraska: Ameer Abdullah, RB
While Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon could have turned pro, it was more of a surprise that Abdullah passed on the '14 draft for a final season at Nebraska. There is little chance his draft stock can climb any higher than it did during a 1,900-total yard 2013 season. Mentioned this on Twitter, but Abdullah (5-9, 190) reminds me some of Eagles star running back LeSean McCoy in the way that he runs -- patient in finding his holes, then smooth and quick in exploiting those openings. The Cornhuskers' top back could be the first back drafted next year.
Northwestern: Brandon Vitabile, C
It's always hard to project too specifically where centers will land in the draft. Vitabile should be one of the first off the board at that position, assuming he builds on a career that has seen him start 38 straight games. Northwestern's offense asks Vitabile to remain rather light on his feet, so it should come as no surprise that he is better with his movement than he is with mashing defenders one on one. Still, at least for a zone-blocking team, Vitabile could fit at either center or guard.Michael Bennett, DT
Get ready for a whole heap of Aaron Donald comparisons. Bennett (6-foot-2, 288 pounds) cuts a similar frame to the much-hyped Donald (6-1, 285), who was a mid-Round 1 pick by the Rams last May. Bennett has not yet been as disruptive up front as Donald -- few have; Donald had 28 tackles for loss and 11 sacks last season -- but his first step is reminiscent of Donald's quickness. Bennett was no slouch in the production department in 2013, at 11.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks.
Donald's coaches and teammates raved about his work ethic, on top of his in-game performance. Bennett might carry similar praise. Ohio State's team website calls Bennett "an outstanding young man... and a thoughtful, team-leader off the field," while also making mention that his parents both graduated from West Point.
Ohio State could send several players to the NFL next season, including quarterback Braxton Miller and outstanding defensive end Noah Spence.
Penn State: Donovan Smith, OT
A redshirt junior like a few others on this list, Smith could stick around Happy Valley until the 2016 draft. Whenever he opts to head out, the hulking 6-foot-5, 335-pound left tackle will find his way onto an NFL roster. Smith has made all 20 starts for Penn State over the past two seasons at left tackle. His steady play there in Bill O'Brien's pro-style offense will provide plenty of quality tape for NFL scouts. Smith already possesses next-level strength, a trait that has served him well with the Nittany Lions often opting to grind it out on the ground.
Purdue: Ryan Russell, DE
The Boilermakers continue to wait for Russell to be more than an on-again, off-again producer with exciting upside. He managed just two sacks last season, down from the four he registered in 2012. Russell (6-5, 273) remains on the draft list because when he is on his game, he can be a dominant defensive end, with the agility to bend the edge and enough strength to plant against the run.
With Devin Funchess officially making the move to wide receiver this year, Kroft and Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman can duke it out for the title of Big Ten's best tight end. The 6-6, 240-pound Kroft fits more of the traditional tight end mold, even if his blocking could use some refinement. His pass-catching is already on the right path -- Kroft led Rutgers with 43 catches for 573 yards last season. Kroft has two years of eligibility left, though the NFL's demand for multi-talented tight ends could accelerate his timeline.
Wisconsin: Melvin Gordon, RB
At one point very early last season, I had Gordon included in the first round of a mock draft. Running backs have had a tough time of late reaching those heights in the draft, but Gordon (6-1, 213) is that talented. He helped ease the Montee Ball loss for the Badgers in 2013, carrying the ball 206 times for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns as part of a pairing with current Patriot James White. Gordon's size should allow him to hold up in the NFL, and he showed on more than one occasion last year that he has the jets to outrun defenders.
One potential sticking point: Is he a three-down back? White saw the bulk of the action in passing situations last season; Gordon finished with just one catch.
On Thursday's SI Now, NFL writers Don Banks and Chris Burke talk about how Ray Rice's press conference was an improvement, but were skeptical about why it took so long to happen.