The top 10 returning Big Ten players
With the 2016 college season completely in the books, we can start to look ahead to next fall. The NFL world is about to find out just how talented this year’s Big Ten class is, but despite all the attrition (especially on defense), the conference is still loaded with premier talent (again, especially on defense).
The 2017 version of the Big Ten will again feature a ton of defensive front-seven talent, but after lackluster QB play throughout the conference for much of the past several seasons, a top-end signal-caller could finally be emerging in Happy Valley. With so many top performers exiting for the NFL, the pecking order in both divisions could be changing. However, when it comes to the cream of this fall’s Big Ten crop, there will still be plenty of familiar faces from familiar places.
1. Penn State RB Saquon Barkley
Barkley is one of the best returning players in the entire country, not just the Big Ten. He boasts the second-highest returning overall grade from 2016 running backs, the second-most yards, the second-most yards after contact and posted more touchdowns and forced missed tackles than any returning back. Elusiveness has been the key to his success, as he has forced 146 total missed tackles in his two seasons at Penn State. With several other key pieces from last year’s offense returning, Barkley is sure to have another outstanding season for the Nittany Lions this fall.
2. Ohio State ED Nick Bosa
Bosa of course had giant shoes to fill in 2016, but did not disappoint. He was every bit the terror on passing downs that his brother was before him, as he racked up 38 total pressures on just 196 rushes. Not surprisingly, his pass-rush productivity rating from last season ranks first in the country among returning 4-3 defensive ends, and is second among all edge defenders. His play against the run was also solid, as he posted 16 run stops on 160 run snaps, and did not miss a tackle in any of the final six regular season games. As will be highlighted below, the Buckeyes are absolutely loaded with edge talent in 2017, but look for Bosa’s productivity to increase, as he is likely to see a significant uptick in snaps because of his stellar play in 2016.
3. Michigan DI Maurice Hurst
Michigan’s defensive line was so loaded in 2016, Hurst was technically not considered a starter. This year, however, he is the clear leader of the unit, as three likely top 100 picks will be moving on to the NFL. In terms of production amongst his returning peers, Hurst has no equal. His 34 total pressures in 173 pass-rush reps last season ranks him first in pass-rush productivity among 2017 defensive tackles, and his 18 run stops on 155 run downs ranks him eighth in run-stop percentage within the same group. Although the Wolverines did an excellent job reloading the defensive line with premier talent on signing day last week, Hurst is clearly going to see a much higher volume of plays in 2017 and should again be among the conference’s and nation’s very best interior defenders.
4. Minnesota DI Steven Richardson
Richardson was a surprise standout last season, as he wasn’t on anyone’s preseason watch list. He exploded out of the gates with two sacks, two hits, five hurries and nine total stops in Minnesota’s three non-conference games, and maintained his strong interior play throughout the conference season. He posted at least four total pressures in six of nine conference games, including a three-game stretch against Purdue, Nebraska and Northwestern that saw him rack up four sacks and 10 hurries. He showed signs of his pass-rush ability during his freshman and sophomore seasons at Minnesota, but took a giant leap forward in his play against the run in 2016 (he posted a run defense grade of 84.9, better than Hurst’s 84.3). Look for him to continue trending upward this fall.
5. Wisconsin ILB Jack Cichy
Cichy was in the middle of an outstanding 2016 campaign when a torn pectoral against Iowa ended his year in Week 8. He excelled in all three phases, most notably posting three sacks, three hits and four hurries to go with 22 total defensive stops in four conference games. His game against Michigan in Week 5 was one of the standout performances of the season, as he ripped the Wolverines for two sacks, four total pressures and six defensive stops with no missed tackles to his name. He has graded out extremely well in each of the past two seasons despite playing less than 400 snaps both years, and if he can maintain his health in 2017 he could be one of the top inside linebackers in the entire country.
6. Ohio State LB Jerome Baker
Raekwon McMillan was the name brand of the Buckeye linebacker corps in 2016, but sophomore first-year starter Jerome Baker was every bit as strong a player in Columbus. Look no further than his performance in The Game, as he terrorized the Wolverines by posting a sack, two hurries and five total stops. His 84.0 run-defense grade is one of the highest among returning Big Ten linebackers this year, and he also gave up just three receptions of over 10 yards on the season. Baker is a prime break-out candidate this fall.
7. Penn State QB Trace McSorley
Penn State went from a 39-point loss against Michigan and a 2-2 start to Big Ten conference champions, and just a play or two away from winning the Rose Bowl. This was in large part due to the emergence of McSorley, who orchestrated one of the most potent passing attacks in the country down the stretch. He performed admirably under pressure throughout the season, posting a 99.6 QB rating with 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions when affected by the rush, and also finished the season with the 11th-highest accuracy percentage on deep throws. He also made plays with his feet, notching 528 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground while forcing 21 missed tackles. He does lose his top target, WR Chris Godwin, who is an early entry to the NFL this year, but with the rest of his main weapons and the run game returning intact, McSorley should again be the Big Ten’s top passer in 2017.
8. Ohio State ED Sam Hubbard
Hubbard made solid gains on the pass rush in 2016, but it was his much-improved run play that has him among the conference’s best returning players. He notched 40 total pressures last season to go with 27 run stops while missing just three tackles. He was at his best down the stretch, as he posted seven total pressures and 12 defensive stops in Ohio State’s final three games. His 31 total defense stops last season were the most of any Big Ten edge player returning this fall, and his 33 solo tackles ranks second. He should have a fine senior season on the Buckeyes’ experienced and talented defensive front.
9. Ohio State ED Tyquan Lewis
Eligible underclassmen having been leaving Columbus for the NFL by the clown-car-load over the past few years, and this offseason is no exception. However, Lewis is one of the few this year to have decided to remain for his senior season, a decision that is probably wise considering the depth of this year’s edge class. Lewis was strong against the run in 2015, but did not grade as well on the pass rush, despite tallying eight sacks. While his run defense didn’t show significant improvement in 2016, he had an outstanding year rushing the passer. He racked up 10 sacks and 52 total pressures this past year, highlighted by his 11 total pressures against Northwestern. His snap count actually decreased this past season, and with both Bosa and Hubbard returning he is likely to stay within the 500-snap range. This should help keep him fresh, and lead to a standout senior season for Lewis.
10. Northwestern S Godwin Igwebuike
The Big Ten was remarkably loaded with secondary talent last year, but almost all of the big names have now departed for the NFL. Igwebuike is a notable exception, as he returns for his senior season this fall after an excellent 2016 campaign in coverage. On the season he gave up just 26 catches on 46 targets, and surrendered just two receptions that went for more than 20 yards. He was also very active in the box against the run, notching 87 solo tackles. He has missed 34 tackles over the past three seasons, but heads into the 2017 season as the second-highest returning safety in the country.