The Big Ten conference is known for pumping out mostly three things in the NFL Draft each year: offensive linemen, defensive linemen, and running backs. While the conference has become a bit more pass focused in recent years and teams are most consistently looking at three and four wide sets, the physical, hard-nosed style of the athletes that play in the conference hasn’t changed all that much.
Keeping up with that trend, five linemen and two running backs make up most of this top ten juniors list, with many more seniors and other possible breakout juniors at those positions included for the future.
MDD Lead Editor: Eric Galko
1. Jonathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State
One of the widest athletes I’ve ever seen, Hankins combines his massive wide, power, and lower body control and balance to devour the interior part of the line. He drives into his initial blocker with good pad level and pop, and naturally slides ball side in run support to attract multiple blockers. He keeps his hands inside and tight, only extending in space or to begin a rush move. He doesn’t lose balance through rush or when splitting blockers, and has some lateral balance and agility. If he’s able to develop some situational rush moves as well as stay impactful at multiple positions on the defensive line (played 0, 1, 3, 5, and 6 techniques in games I watched), he could be a worth a Top 5 pick.
2. William Gholston, DE, Michigan State
One of the best in college football at driving with his lower half and dominating with inside leverage, Gholston comes down the line from his defensive end spot with as much power as any of the defensive ends taken in last year’s draft. He’s able to drop low and not get too wide in his pursuit, holding the point of attack well and keeping his vision in the backfield. If he can develop a better counter rush, use his hands to shed inside on run support in the B-gap, and flash more ability in space, he could be a Top 5 pick in the NFL Draft.
3. Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Lewan isn’t a finished product in a lot of ways as a left tackle prospect, but all the tools are certainly there for him to make strides for his junior (and hopefully senior) years. The biggest concern for Lewan is his inconsistency in keeping his back arched and balanced, pass protection especially. His flexibility as an athlete seems to be there, but he over-extends and reaches too much. Other than that, his hand placement is solid but could be more consistent, and he keeps a very wide base with powerfully planting steps that allow him to hold his ground consistently. He has active hands as well and doesn’t slow or tire through plays or whole games. A lot to like, but Lewan just needs time to develop.
4. Akeem Spence, DT, Illinois
Spence is a bit smaller and more stout that I’d like as an impact, versatile nose tackle, but his ability to fire, explode, and readjust allows him to be consistently successful in beating interior linemen. A very thick, powerful upper half, Spence has a consistent motor and readjusts his hands well in pursuit. He’s not overly quick off the snap and isn’t the type of gap splitting you’d hope for in a nose tackle, but if he can develop some quick, lateral rush moves, he could become a very solid nose tackle, with potential ability to slip outside at a 5-technique.
5. Silas Redd, RB, Penn State
Well-built for a running back, Redd has a rare balance of vision and burst through the hole. He keeps his feet decisive in the hole and doesn’t dance or scatter when approaching contact. He’s able to keep his pad level low and drive through on interior runs. Not as powerful to maintain that consistently at the next level, his ability to drive through for yardage outside the A-gaps combined with the offense’s trust in him to pick up first downs should put him in the national spotlight this year. I’m hoping he’s able to get more involved in the passing game as well.
6. Le’Von Bell, RB, Michigan State
Very explosive up field on his initial burst, Bell uses his great size and bulk as a runner to get to his top speed quickly and be a decisive runner in the hole. His combination of size and balance in his jump cuts should allow him to thrive in zone blocking schemes at the next level. He also has experience as a pass catcher and is able to get subtle separation as a receiver, something that if he should improve, could make him a 2nd-3rd rounder.
7. Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
A do-everything type of weapon for the Badgers, Abbrederis lines up at multiple receiver spots, has been asked to run a multitude of routes, and is the conference’s top returner, possibly adding his most initial value to the NFL in that area despite being around 6’1. He’s able to flip to get yardage after the catch smoothly, and has great initial vision with the ball in his hands. Has a tendency to get sloppy in routes downfield when he anticipates the opening, leading to smaller throwing windows and availability for defenders to close quicker than they should.
8. Jonathan Brown, ILB, Illinois
An explosive athlete who has quick twitch reactions as a delayed pass rusher from his linebacker position, Brown is both powerful and decisive. He’s at his best when he can rush, especially delayed on the inside because of his patience and ability to get to his top speed quickly. His coverage skills are developing, and he turns and faces with his upper half well, but he doesn’t have decisive footwork nor great hips to open up for anything more than flat coverage.
9. Chris Borland, ILB, Wisconsin
Active on the interior in pursuit, Borland shows fantastic ability to lower his shoulders and drive through contact while keeping his feet. He shows the ability to explode through contact and drive to the ball carrier, though he could get better in sorting through traffic on outside runs without an interior rushing lane. A bit undersized will hurt his long-term NFL ceiling, though, being just 5’10.
10. CJ Barnett, S, Ohio State
A solid centerfielder, Barnett is patient and consistent in coverage, decisive in his footwork and not allowing for plays to leave his range of coverage. An adequate but not overly powerful tackler, Barnett could be more consistent in his tackling technique in traffic. As a coverage safety, Barnett shows impressive ability to pick up in short and mid-area man coverage, and rarely lets double moves get vertical on him.