By Ian Wharton
The Big Ten conference has struggled to produce professional prospects the way the other “Power 5” conferences have in recent years. The 2014 NFL draft was no different, as the Big Ten had just 30 players selected, which ranked fourth amongst the “Power 5”. That being said, the Big Ten enters the 2014-college football season with refreshing momentum. Every team in the conference has a major argument that they’ve improved the talent on their roster.
After reviewing the 2013 season for all 14 Big Ten teams, including newcomers Rutgers and Maryland, I found each team to have potential NFL contributors. This list looks at the top five NFL prospects for each team in the conference, along with some analysis on the top players. Some teams are deeper than others, so not every team’s number five player will be equal to another’s.
- Michael Heitz, LG
As the Illini’s top prospect, Heitz is also one of the more experienced players on the roster, starting 21 games in the last two seasons. Possessing a good frame at 6’5” and 305 pounds, the senior has the ability to get to the second level of defenses and make critical blocks that spur chunk plays. Heitz isn’t consistent in his hand use and is vulnerable to speed rushers on the interior defensive line, so he will have to improve his awareness and technique. Entering the season, he is borderline draftable.
- Simon Cvijanovic, LT
At 6’6” and 310 pounds, Cvijanovic has very good size for NFL tackle. He lacks great experience, only starting two games on the left side and his other 15 games at right tackle. His inexperience shows, as he doesn’t punch speed rushers away with enough consistency. A potential NFL strong side or backup swing tackle, Cvijanovic does have room to grow with his quickness.
- Earnest Thomas, SS
The second-year starter plays a hybrid linebacker/safety role for Illinois, and his general inexperience was evident as he took poor angles to ball carriers. Thomas is a very impressive athlete for a defensive back, but his instincts are severely lacking. With his size and speed, his ability to read the offense and be the aggressor will be key in 2014.
- Austin Teitsma, DT
This undersized nose tackle competes on every play, leading to cleanup tackle opportunities. His job isn’t to disrupt the offense, so his stat sheet will never impress. Mostly in a two-gapping role, Teitsma projects as a developmental 5-technique.
- Jon Davis, TE
Davis played in every game in 2013, but really struggled to make an impact. He’s lined up as a running back, receiver and tight end throughout his career highlights his athletic ability, but he’s raw right now. At 6’3”, 240, there is some upside to Davis.
- Collin Rahrig, C
One of the better prospects in the conference, Rahrig is talented in pass and run protection. He’s very strong at the point of attack, and is a key cog for Indiana’s rushing game. Multiple times in 2013, he pancaked highly regarded interior defensive lineman, showing good leverage and hands. His athleticism is also a plus, as he gets way out on screens and finds defenders. Overall, he is well rounded and deserving of an early day three grade.
- David Cooper, OLB
The strong side linebacker for the Hoosiers is a defensive leader and jack-of-all trades player due to his athletic ability. With solid fluidity that allows him to cover opposing tight ends and enough instincts to play sideline to sideline, Cooper is a playmaker. He recognizes plays well, and can to improve that in his third season starting. His biggest knock is explosiveness, as his first step isn’t better than average, so he will have to compensate with better mental processing. He also doesn’t wade through the trash as well as one would like for a strong side linebacker. Currently, he projects as a late-round pick.
- Shane Wynn, WR/OW
Despite his diminutive 5’7”, 165-pound frame, Wynn is explosive in the open field. His short-area burst and agility allows him to create massive yards after catch. His kick return abilities and pure receiver skills could allow him to get a chance in the NFL, but he will have to overcome his size.
- Bobby Richardson, DT
Richardson struggles to stay low consistently, and he gets moved downfield too easily for his size. He has good awareness for the ball, but is a major project.
- Mark Murphy, S
- Carl Davis, DT
One of the top players in the country, Davis enters the 2014 season with first-round potential. His mammoth 6’5”, 315-pound frame moves interior lineman right back into the quarterback when he uses his leverage correctly. He is difficult to guard with one blocker, as he is very strong and has enough quickness to get around guards. His pad level must stay low to be effective, and double teams drown him out, but he has the chance to become a quality NFL starter.
- Brandon Scherff, OT
The definition of a Big Ten offensive tackle, Scherff is a powerful, nasty road grader. His relentless power drives defenders far downfield and rarely misses the opportunity to seal edge blocks. He isn’t a great athlete and lacks ideal length, so his technique in pass protection will need to improve. His agility is average, and he bends at the waist to compensate. If he can correct this, he should be an early-round pick next year.
- John Lowdermilk, S
A solid tackler, Lowdermilk has enough range to get from the far side of the field to the ball in enough time to finish a play. He has great size, and enough physical traits to be successful. His impact against the passing game is limited right now, so instincts are a question.
- Kevonte Martin-Manley, WR
One of the best return men in the country, Martin-Manley has an opportunity to show he can play receiver and be productive. He has good quickness and agility for his 205-pound frame, but his route running and consistency has to improve.
- Mike Hardy, DE
1. Sal Conaboy, C
A powerful blocker that seals interior runs well, Conaboy is fierce once he gets his hands on a defender. He seals blocks well and is a very good help blocker. He has enough athletic ability and agility to get to the second level of the defense and find a defender. His hand use against speed rushers is suspect, but fixable. He projects as a future NFL starter or quality backup.
2. Darius Kilgo, NT
The 6’3”, 310-pound tackle is a raw athlete with considerable upside. He has good quickness and power, and wins with his physical gifts. His technique is poor, as he stands straight up too much, but he is a considerably gifted player.
3. Andre Monroe, DE
Monroe is extremely productive, and a can’t-miss player on film. He’s very small, though, at only 5’11”. His lack of length won’t project well to the next level, but as a situational player with good quickness, hand use and bull rush, he could contribute.
4. Matt Robinson, OLB
5. L.A. Goree, ILB
- Frank Clark, DE
A highly polished player already, Clark gave major troubles to every NFL-caliber tackle he faced in 2013. He has very good power, but also the quickness to beat tackles with spin moves and pure speed. His bend isn’t great, but he is crafty with his hands. He is also fluid enough to cover the flats and tight ends at times.
- Raymon Taylor, CB
Although purely a zone cornerback, Taylor reads and reacts with good efficiency. His ability to throttle down on his backpedal and explode to the ball leads to defensed passes and interceptions. Ball skills are a major plus; now he has to finish plays more. His size is a concern, but he is feisty.
- Devin Gardner, QB
In his senior season, Gardner is looking for more consistency with touch passes. He is very strong, and has great mobility. He can improve his mental processes by reading defenses better and not staring down as much. The physical gifts are there to develop.
- Desmond Morgan, OLB
- Thomas Rawls, RB
- Kurtis Drummond, FS
Possessing a great frame and good speed, Drummond has the potential to be a very good overall safety. He plays well against the run, attacking the box efficiently. His play recognition is advanced, and this allows him to be in position whenever he’s in deep zone. He’s fluid enough to cover slot receivers in off-coverage as well. Drummond has the potential to be an early draft pick.
- Taiwan Jones, OLB
With experience at both outside linebacker positions, Jones has played well in a variety of roles. Against Ohio State, he spied Braxton Miller better than anyone has in his career. His fluidity and closing speed is very impressive. He is an efficient tackler despite being undersized. His ability to play in coverage is greatly valuable. He needs to shed blocks much better.
- Tony Lippett, WR
He’s raw as a receiver, lacking the route running polish needed to be an instant NFL impact player, but at 6’3” 192, he has good potential. Lippett has strong hands and body control, allowing him to make impressive sideline catches.
- Marcus Rush, DE
- Connor Kruse, RG
- David Santos, OLB
2014 will be the first major playing time for Santos.
- Aaron Curry, DT
Like Santos, Curry doesn’t have significant playing time yet.
- Ameer Abdullah, RB
Combining good power, agility, quickness and vision, Abdullah is one of the best running backs in the entire country. His balance allows him to bounce off would-be tacklers with ease. He doesn’t do one thing amazingly, but everything very well.
- Kenny Bell, WR
He doesn’t have the stats or targets yet, but at 6’1” and 185, Bell is quick and oozing with potential. He has to stay on the field more than in recent seasons, but he could develop into a NFL role player.
- Matt Finnin, LT
- Donovan Vestal, DE
- Corey Cooper, S
- Brandon Vitabile, C
Vitabile is a well-balanced center that offers support against the run and pass. He stays low consistently, allowing him to beat more talented defensive lineman. He doesn’t have great strength or mobility, but he’s good enough to be effective. Entering the season, he could be a potential late-round draft pick.
- Chi Chi Ariguzo
Ariguzo racks up big numbers for the Wildcats, but many of his plays happen well past the line of scrimmage. He’s a plus athlete, with good hip fluidity that allows him to cover slot receivers and tight ends. As a weak side linebacker, he can track the ball carrier down from behind. There’s a lot of room for improvement with his hand use, as he doesn’t disengage from blocks well.
- Ibraheim Campbell, S
Campbell isn’t a great athlete or playmaker, but he fills his role well. He doesn’t blow coverages and is a leader on the defense. A potential backup and special teams star, Campbell can bring consistency as a late-round or undrafted free agent.
- Jack Konopka, LT
- Paul Jorgensen, RT
- Michael Bennett, DT
Bennett is one of the better defensive tackles in the country, as he demands double teams often. His blend of quickness and power makes him a handful for many offensive lines. At 288 pounds, he’s quick enough to stunt and still reach the quarterback. He has to become more consistent with his hand use and pad level to reach his potential, but his ceiling is very high.
- Jeff Heuerman, TE
The versatile h-back and tight end will be the Buckeyes’ primary target this season, and expectations are high. At 6’5” and 255 pounds, Heuerman is a good run blocker and a big target. He is a good athlete with an impressive catch radius. He’s not the fastest or a quick-twitch athlete, but he’s going to be productive with his route running and ability to find gaps in coverage.
- Braxton Miller, QB
Miller’s development throughout his career is highly impressive, as he arrived at Ohio State barely able to throw a spiral downfield. If he can make a jump from 2013 to 2014 like he has in previous years, Miller will be one of the top senior quarterbacks in the country. His release is still elongated and his touch on passes is inconsistent, but his raw tools are tremendous. He has terrific arm strength and major clutch factor. He’s a must-watch player in 2014.
- Duran Grant, CB
Grant struggled like all the Buckeyes cornerbacks in 2013 due to a poor scheme fit, but the team will be switching to more reasonable and aggressive coverages in 2014. Grant is a good athlete that recovers quickly, and now needs to improve his recognition ability.
- Curtis Grant, ILB
- Bill Belton, RB
Belton isn’t flashy, as he doesn’t have great power, quickness or shiftiness, but he is exactly what zone-blocking teams want. He has great patience and enough juice to get through running lanes. His vision is very good, and has enough power to break arm tackles. A potential late round pick, Belton is one of the better backs in the conference.
- Miles Dieffenbach, LG
Dieffenbach is raw, but flashes the ability to be a good NFL prospect. He waist-bends in pass protection too often to be a force, but he has good natural power. He’s productive in the run game if he doesn’t have to pull often.
- C.J. Olaniyan, DE
Despite playing often the last few years, Olaniyan is very raw with his technique, and gets washed out of too many plays. That being said, he’s a powerful player with a little twitch. If he’s moved to a rush outside linebacker spot, he can use his length much more effectively.
- Adrian Amos, CB
- Zack Zwinak, RB
- Ryan Russell, DE
An edge rusher that likely fits best as a 5-technique, Russell likely doesn’t have enough athleticism to be an NFL player. He is stiff, limiting his ability to bend the edge or get free from more powerful tackles.
- Taylor Richards, S
- Justin Sinz, TE
- Sean Robinson, LB
- Akeem Hunt, RB
- Kevin Snyder, OLB
The most productive Rutgers defensive player is also the teams’ top prospect entering the season, as he is always near the ball. He isn’t a great athlete, but he can win near the line of scrimmage consistently. He can be an effective player in time if his technique and awareness.
- Kaleb Johnson, LG
Johnson is one of the top interior linemen in college football with his 6’4”, 305-pound frame. He has decent quickness, but really wins inside a phone booth. His upside is solid, but at the worst, he’s a starting caliber guard.
- Paul James, RB
The 6’0”, 200-pound back has NFL size right now, and should be effective once again for Rutgers. He has good vision and power that will translate well. His open-field ability to pull away from defenders is a concern, but he gets solid yardage when he finds the gaps.
- Quentin Gause, OLB
- Tyler Kroft, TE