Ohio State is going to be good. Like, possibly undefeated-repeat-national-champs good. The Buckeyes' toughest hurdle to clear may be a Nov. 21 visit from Michigan State.
A quick glance through the Big Ten's 2016 draft prospects makes rather obvious why those teams are the two to beat within the conference this season. Both Ohio State and Michigan State are loaded with potential NFL talent, much of it of the round 1 variety.
How many other players crashed the Buckeyes and Spartans' party among the Big Ten's top 10 draft prospects? Who else is on the NFL radar? We break it down:
1. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State: “Joey Bosa is one of the best players at any position in the country,” Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said last October, via the Columbus Dispatch, before his team took on Ohio State. “He’s a tremendous all-down defensive lineman, a disruptive guy. ... If you don’t account for him on every play with more than one blocker, it’s going to be hard to move the ball down the field.”
Despite the extra attention Flood promised, Bosa notched 2.0 sacks of Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova last season. That performance came as part of a five-week sack streak, and Bosa notched 6.5 sacks during just the final three games of his run. All told, he had 13.5 sacks in his sophomore season and 21.0 tackles for loss, while setting himself up as arguably the 2016 draft class's top prospect heading into this year.
Ohio State players all share the benefit of playing on a roster loaded with NFL talent. Bosa still made his presence felt repeatedly in 2015. A 6'6", 275-pound force off the edge, Bosa at times overpowered blockers in Justin Smith-like fashion; at other times, he used his athleticism to drive tackle to tackle for a play.
The NFL will have to wait until at last next April to get its hands on him, but Bosa could step in and play as a pro right now.
2. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State: Whenever a running back piles up eye-popping numbers playing for a dominant team, a few naysayers always emerge with the old, “Well, anyone could run behind that line/score in that offense/play next to that quarterback” arguments. It's already happening with Frank Gore in Indianapolis, now that he will be Andrew Luck's sidekick.
It's also rarely true.
Of course, Urban Meyer's scheme helped open holes, but the main reason Elliott ran for 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns last season is that he's a phenomenal back. Also a junior, Elliott was absurd down the stretch for the Buckeyes: 220 yards and two touchdowns in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, 230 yards and two touchdowns in a playoff semifinal against Alabama, and then a 246-yard, four-touchdown showing vs. Oregon in the title game.
Need an imperfect comp? Think Marshawn Lynch. Elliott has more to do on passing downs before he can be considered that type of three-down back, but he thrives on a similar powerful, quick-cut running style.
3. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State:
The goal is to do more, because the talent appears to be there for Calhoun to take over games—maybe not in Bosa-esque fashion, but close. The 6'4", 250-pound Calhoun can hold up well against the run. It's in his pass rushing, though, where the real NFL-level talent shows through. Calhoun can get upfield and bend the edge in the blink of an eye.
So far, that speed also has worked against him. In his efforts to get into the backfield, Calhoun can run himself out of position. There is more of an all-around game here waiting to be unlocked.
4. Taylor Decker, T, Ohio State: Well, we had gone one whole spot without an Ohio State player ...
A 29-game starter (and counting), the 6'8", 315-pound Decker cuts the figure NFL teams want in a franchise left tackle. He's more than capable in his blocking, too, especially when asked to help push defenses back for Elliott and the Buckeyes' run game. His length alone makes him difficult to beat on the outside. Add in his sound footwork, and you get a prospect who probably would have landed in round 1 this year had he entered the draft.
If there is work to be done for Decker, it is in the passing game. Ohio State's quarterbacks can cover up blocking mistakes with their athletic gifts, but Decker can allow himself to be pushed into the pocket.
5. Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State: Here is the challenge in evaluating Cook thus far: He makes throws that he probably would not get away with as an NFL quarterback but also can deliver passes that few other college quarterbacks would even attempt.
“His big thing is his consistency and decision-making,” Michigan State quarterbacks coach Brad Salem said on “The Griff and Grinz Show”. “There's a couple plays a game you'll say, ‘What is he doing?’ ... But then, boom, it's still a completion.”
Cook's 58.1% completion rate last season (and 58.3% clip for his career) is indicative of that roller coaster ride. The arm talent exists for Cook to rocket past that number. Not only can the 6'4" signal-caller shine from the pocket, even in the face of pressure, but he has shown a knack for excelling when forced from his comfort zone.
6. Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State: How much of last season was Hackenberg's fault? NFL scouts are wondering that very thing about the Penn State junior, following a 2014 season in which Hackenberg appeared to regress badly. Remember, he was not that long ago being hyped as a potential No. 1 pick.
He may get back to that status, but first he must wipe the slate clean. Plagued by a swiss-cheese offensive line, Hackenberg threw just 12 touchdowns to 15 interceptions last year, with a 55% completion rate and a measly 6.2 yards per attempt. (For comparison, Cook finished at 8.8 yards per attempt.)
All the physical characteristics are there: 6'4", strong arm, sturdy base. But Hackenberg made little, if any, progress toward being an NFL quarterback in 2014. His throws were rushed and his mechanics suffered as a result. Can he find his groove again in 2015?
7. Jack Conklin, T, Michigan State: Conklin could be among the most prominent guard-or-tackle conversations for the 2016 class. Just draft him and worry about it later.
The 6'6", 317-pound junior has started 23 straight games at left tackle, where he has established himself as an intelligent, impressive run blocker—he can rock defenders back on their heels, while also shedding his initial assignment to find a second-level defender. Conklin may not have the raw quickness to hang on the left side (hence the possibility of a shift to guard), but he'll thrive somewhere.
8. Anthony Zettel, DT, Penn State: Once a highly regarded recruit, Zettel flipped the switch last season from solid contributor to borderline dominant defender. It's no coincidence that he elevated his game in concert with a move to tackle, where his footwork made his 6'4", 274-pound frame a colossal headache. He recorded 17.0 tackles for loss and 8.0 sacks last season.
There will be some debate over his best NFL position—sticking at DT, a five-tech DE within a 3-4 scheme, maybe even dropping weight and playing OLB as at least one draft analyst suggested. That variety of options only helps his stock.
9. Adolphus Washington, DT, Ohio State: In case the Ohio State offense is not unstoppable enough, the defense also has several Day 1 or 2 draft candidates after Bosa comes off the board. Washington and linebacker Darron Lee are at the top of the list.
Washington, all 6'4" and 290 pounds of him, is expected to take over the three-technique job up front this season. During last season's title run, he slid over to nose tackle so as to allow Michael Bennett more run from that three-tech spot. Bennett slid all the way to the sixth round; Washington's draft ceiling is far higher should he settle into that role.
10. Leonte Carroo, WR, Rutgers: Much the way we have to acknowledge Hackenberg's nonexistent O-line when talking about his play, Carroo's 2014 season (55 catches, 1,086 yards, 10 touchdowns) cannot be appreciated fully without mentioning that his team may have had the worst quarterback play in the Big Ten.
Nevertheless, the senior receiver offers an all-around game: speed to stretch the field or catch and run, plus size and a decent understanding of his routes.
TBD. Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State: The best quarterback in the country for a span of just over three games late last season, Jones was so electrifying in limited duty that he actually surprised many people when he decided to stay in Columbus. Could he be the Big Ten's top offensive prospect when all is said and done?