Top NFL draft prospects by position from the Big Ten
Connor Cook and Ezekiel Elliott lead the way as Wes Huber reviews the top Big Ten talent ahead of the 2016 NFL draft.
Top NFL draft prospects by position from the Big Ten
Blessed with witnessing a truly special era in college football history, the current balance of talent across the Power-5 conferences is a trend desired by all sports at any level. This past season, the Big Ten continued to make its mark as a perennial threat behind an impressive total of six teams accruing 10 wins or more. Luring the likes of Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh, Paul Chryst, and, for 2016, Lovie Smith into the mix of solid head coaches has pushed the conference to new heights.
In response, the trail of talent flowing from the Big Ten programs will be on full display atop and throughout the 2016 NFL draft. Below is a list detailing the chalk, as well as a few sleepers, from the Big Ten’s impressive list of draft prospects.
1. Connor Cook
Cook ended his career as the Spartans’ all-time leader in wins, a record that included three consecutive bowl victories and concluded with a spot in the 2015 College Football Playoff. His style of play fits the pocket passer personification and he will provide ample pro-style experience with plus arm strength. However, many important questions surround Cook’s inaccuracy on intermediate throws that will likely drop him into the second day of the draft.
Cook experienced a significant drop-off in production facing the blitz in 2015, after a previous season that saw his passer rating increase in those situations by 45.6 and notch 16 TDs to only a single interception. That said, Cook led the nation in accuracy percentage on throws of 20 or more yards downfield, which tailor-suits him to a vertical passing offensive scheme. He has a lightning-fast release, makes quick decisions and should provide decent value selected after the second round.
1. Ezekiel Elliott
Elliott has the potential to break the current NFL trend of running back devaluation based upon an all-around skillset that projects him as one of the best prospects offered at the position in many years. His cutback ability propelled him to finish 2015 with the eighth-best yards after contact per attempt average in the country. His value extends further as a receiver, dropping only three of 55 catchable passes over the last two years with excellent ball awareness and YAC ability.
Elliott is commonly misidentified as a back vulnerable to taking significant shots, as he pushed some plays in an attempt to spark a struggling offense. However, in 2014 tape he displayed a level-changing ability that is well above average. What pushes Elliott into the “special” category is an all-purpose game that is personified by a blocking proficiency that’s as equally aggressive as it is effective, and will immediately allow him to become an every-down lead back with top-ten overall first-round value.
2. Jordan Howard
Howard is unique to the landscape of the upcoming draft in that he was extremely productive in 2014 playing for UAB, saw a major upgrade in surrounding talent last season with Indiana, matched his level of production facing the defensive uptick in competition, and yet has fallen well below the radar during the draft analysis process. Whichever franchise properly avoids making the mistake of overlooking Howard’s value will be sure to reap the benefits.
It’s very important to keep in mind that Howard checks in at 6-foot, 230 pounds, possesses breakaway speed, and finished 10th and 15th respectively in elusive rating over the last two seasons. Concerns over durability and pass-blocking effectiveness are not without merit, but his strengths are far too much to overlook and outweigh his inadequacies. One only needs to view his 2015 performances in Weeks 10 and 11 versus Iowa and Michigan to get a glimpse at his immense potential available to an NFL rushing attack.
Honorable mention: Paul James
1. Leonte Carroo
Another prospect hailing from the Big Ten that is receiving significantly less notice than deserved is brought to us from the college in Piscataway, New Jersey. What makes the Rutgers’ star all-the-more promising beyond production is twofold: the average longevity at the position and an exceptionally high ceiling for further development. Carroo was recruited to Rutgers from Don Bosco High School after leaving behind a variety of comically incorrect entry evaluations, despite posting 49 receptions, 1,110 yards, and 18 touchdowns during his senior season.
Overcoming sub-average quarterback play during his time with the Scarlet Knights, Carroo posted elite yards per route run ranks of sixth and first, respectively, over the last two seasons. His hands are a truly special trait (two drops out of 95 catchable passes since 2014) and will allow him to provide immediate playability. Should his actual draft slot fall in line with the current projections, Carroo has proven consistently to thrive with a chip on his shoulder.
2. Michael A. Thomas
Despite his effective play, Thomas is yet another of the conference’s undervalued playmakers. After finding himself partially written-off following an average showing at the NFL scouting combine, Thomas responded at the Ohio State pro day with reported 40-yard dash times south of 4.40. Unofficial timings are, for the most part, an unreliable resource, but even adding a 10th of a second to the reported time does very little to lessen his value.
Offering coveted size (6-feet-3-inches, 212 pounds) to challenge the average undersized NFL cornerback is a factor significantly heightened by his ability to work after the catch. A combined vertical prowess encompassing 705 receiving yards, six touchdowns, and securing 20-of-23 catchable targets of 20 or more yards over the last two years is independently impressive. Yet, his ability to cut decisively off of the line and to turn a simple short throw into a long gain is unrivaled in the draft class.
One of the keys to his success is a tackle-shedding ability that forces safety help at all times, and Thomas displays zero hesitation to take a hit while working the middle of the field. Arm tackles are broken with relative ease while offering plus body control and hand-eye coordination to adjust to making plays in the air. Thomas is a first-round talent that could provide his team with a true No. 1 option in the passing game as well as above-average blocking ability for the run.
Honorable mention: Aaron Burbridge
1. Jack Conklin
A former walk-on, Conklin impressively transformed himself from an unknown into one of the top tackles in the nation. That distinction extends back to the 2014 season after finishing as the third-highest-graded tackle in both of the last two seasons and within the top-12 in pass-blocking efficiency during the same time. Likely to be drafted after Laremy Tunsil and Ronnie Stanley, Conklin will offer his team the desired blindside protection without the extremely pricy draft slot.
2. Jason Spriggs
Areas exist where Spriggs will require work, and you could make the case that he is a better athlete than football player at this point in his career. However, his athleticism has drawn significant attention. That is not to say he is not a good player, as he allowed only three sacks, three hits, and six hurries in 2015, with the 10th-highest pass-blocking grade in this draft class. If he is able to work on portions of his technique, he could provide appropriate value to an NFL roster.
3. Taylor Decker
Decker played a monumental role in the success of the Buckeyes’ championship season of 2014 that saw his backside protection transformed from being initially tailored toward the play-style of Braxton Miller, to that of J.T. Barrett, and concluding with Cardale Jones during their postseason run. Decker concluded that title-winning season within the top-16 in both PFF overall grading and pass-blocking efficiency among all tackles. He took a small step backwards, along with a few others from the OSU offense, during the 2015 season, but his size, strength, versatility, and blocking ability should project very well to the NFL game.
1. Joey Bosa
The true definition of the overall package, Bosa offers strength, speed, agility and an endless motor. Any questions surrounding his timings at the combine do his body of work no justice. His ability to drive his blocker into the point of attack was unrivaled in college football, despite his opponents’ constant usage of double- and triple-teams. That disruption of the offensive line created countless opportunities for the surrounding defenders.
If there is a downside to Bosa’s game, it was a proneness toward over-pursuit that derived from sheer aggression, but his footwork is outstanding, and he frequently made his first move long before the opposing lineman was able to react. Based on production and the quality of tape, Bosa is clearly the draft’s top-overall player that offers the can’t-miss potential few others in the class can approach.
2. Shilique Calhoun
Calhoun is not great against the run, earning a grade barely north of positive in 2015. He can be classified as a very good pass-rusher, with only Bosa ahead of him from last season. Calhoun impressively racked up 11 sacks, 17 hits and 48 hurries for Michigan State in 2015, and should, in the very least, be able to contribute as a pass rusher on obvious passing downs early in his career. If he wants to develop into a top-end player, he must improve in run defense.
3. Carl Nassib
Nassib swept the majority of the postseason awards after collecting an impressive total of 16 sacks. While sacks are not—and should not be—the standard for projecting value, it certainly doesn’t hinder the evaluation. Nassib was extremely impressive during Senior Bowl workouts, and he followed that with an average showing at the combine. Regardless of the combine metrics, Nassib offers elite quarterback disruption off of the edge coveted in the NFL, as evidenced by posting the top-ranked pass-rush productivity among edge defenders last season, and offers a future as an imposing passing-down defender.
4. Joe Schobert
Regardless of where he was positioned on the field, Schobert excelled rushing the passer, stopping the run, and in coverage. He allowed a mere 0.27 yards per coverage snap, and finished 2015 with the fifth-best coverage snaps per reception among 3-4 outside linebackers. In addition, Schobert posted the second-best pass-rush productivity and eighth-best run-stop percentage in the FBS. The only stain to his impressive reputation hails from a propensity for occasionally missing tackles, but a criticism that shouldn’t prevent Schobert from earning a respectable draft slot with meaningful NFL snaps.
Honorable mention: Yannick Ngakoue
1. Darron Lee
Lee is an interesting player, because while he is an off-the-ball linebacker, his best work has come as a pass-rusher. While racking up 13 sacks, 11 hits, and 30 hurries in the past two season, he displayed the speed that defines his impact. He graded fairly well against the run, and while his coverage grade suggests an area for improvement, he spent a lot of time in slot coverage. In total, Lee displayed ups-and-downs, concluding the season with a variety of plays showcasing the good and those for which work will need to be done.
1. Vonn Bell
There is plenty to like about Bell, and, after an impressive showing at the combine, we have proof that his athleticism is present both on and off the field. While he graded positively both against the run and in coverage in each of the past two seasons, one area he will need to improve as he moves to the NFL are the number of missed tackles (nine, tied for 59th among the 120 draft eligible safeties with qualifying snaps). There’s work to be done, but there’s also enough on tape to highlight Bell as a top 70 player in this draft.
2. Tanner McEvoy
It may come as a bit of a surprise to see McEvoy’s name on this list, but the level of progression he displayed following the full-time transition from quarterback was excitingly impressive. McEvoy allowed a minuscule 24.8 passer rating in coverage without allowing a single touchdown. During 395 total snaps in coverage, McEvoy recorded five pass defenses and posted the sixth-best yards per coverage snap in the nation.
In addition, McEvoy recorded the fifth-best coverage snaps per reception rate in the country and not only led FBS safeties in interceptions, but was one of only five at the position to record more than three picks without allowing an assignment-TD. During Wisconsin’s pro day, McEvoy provided a glimpse of the athleticism that explains a portion of his strong play.
The remaining factor toward explaining his ascent to the top is defined by a game awareness that cannot be represented in timings or tape-measurements. Regardless of whether he is selected during the second or third day of the draft, McEvoy has the ball-hawking skills that will allow him to find a spot on an NFL roster.
Honorable mentions: Clayton Fejedelem
Wes Huber | Analyst
Wes is an analyst and fantasy correspondent at Pro Football Focus. He's been with the company since 2014, and his work has been featured on DraftKings Playbook and FantasyPros.