While most fans don’t instantly associate the Big East with top NFL talent, the conference has boasted some of the NFL’s most talented players currently reaching the prime of their career. Pass rushers like Jason Pierre Paul and recent first rounder Chandler Jones are most notable for being high picks, but also Devin McCourtey of Rutgers and Jonathan Baldwin of Pitt are certainly notable for NFL teams.
While we may not have a junior at the level of JPP or Chandler Jones, there is a few pass rushers, a top Rutgers cornerback, a top Pitt receiver, and Syracuse and Louisville dominate the list.
1. Justin Pugh, OT, Syracuse
Among the best left tackles in all of college football from what I’ve seen, Pugh slides with balance, plays wide, and keeps his hands inside his chest plate. He can be a bit over-finesse and not overpower in the running game, but that likely will be polished with time. He also can keep his feet too wide and powerful interior bull rushes can give him problems. Overall, however, he has ideal size and athleticism to be an NFL left tackle in the future.
2. Hakeem Smith, S, Louisville
One of the most explosive players in the entire Big East, what Smith lacks in bulk (still very tough/built for a 180 pound safety), he makes up for in quick turning ability, fluid breaks on the ball, and finishing ability in his tackles. He can be caught trying to do too much and can play a little overaggressive at times but the natural talent of a strong safety or even a Cover 2 CB/S certainly shows on film.
3. Devin Street, WR, Pittsburgh
The 6’4 receiver took over for Jonathan Baldwin as the team’s feature receiver last season, and while he didn’t have the type of dominating ability in past Pitt receivers have had, his length and downfield ability look the part of a future NFL outside starter. He’ll need to bulk up in the lower half and get more physical across the middle and in traffic, but the natural skill set is there to do better than the 700+ yards he had a season ago.
4. Logan Ryan, CB, Rutgers
Maybe the best cornerback in the Big East, Ryan fits the mold of past Rutgers cornerbacks/safeties: physical at the line of scrimmage, finishes tackles in his area, and uses his strength and reaction timing to disrupt passes downfield. Built similar to Devin McCourty, he hasn’t shown quite the ball skills McCourty flashed at Rutgers, but could certainly improve there and become one of the feature cornerbacks in the country by season’s end.
5. Jay Bromley, DT, Syracuse
Not overly productive last year and didn’t finish his tackles when he had the chance in the backfield, Bromley is a naturally powerful inside pass rusher. He plays a little high off the snap at times, doesn’t readjust his hands consistently against secondary blockers, and leans forward at times which causes him to lose balance. However, his natural strength, leg drive, and ability to keep his feet wide and not leave openings in the middle allows him to be a forceful interior pass rushing threat.
6. Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Undersized (likely under his 6’0 listing) for a defensive tackle translating to the NFL game, Donald remained productive all season in 2011 and was one of the forces on the interior that allowed for the defense to thrive at points last season. Plays with a high motor and attacks shoulders with leverage positioning well. He’ll need to show a Mike Martin type dominating interior ability if he hopes to get drafted in the first 5 rounds in the future, however.
7. Cole Wagner, P, UConn
A punter on the list of top juniors? May seem a bit odd, but Wagner is a special punter. While he’s battling with fellow junior Pat O’Donnell for the top punter in the Big East (another junior), I think Wagner has just as good of a leg and the more consistent punting accuracy. And for specialists, stats are certainly relevant. 50% of Wagner’s punts were either inside the 20 or fair caught. That’s a fantastic number, meaning that half the time Wagner puts, nothing good comes of the return. Combine that with a 41 yard per punt average last year. Special punting talent.
8. K’Waun Williams, CB, Pittsburgh
Despite being more of 3rd cornerback last year and playing outside with Buddy Jackson on the interior, Williams consistently made plays for this Pitt secondary, both as a run supporter and in the short area passing game. He played significantly more as a freshman two years ago, and he has the experience to be a consistent outside cornerback. His versatility and willingness to come up field should do wonders for his draft stock as he deals with a Big East that features may solid running backs and mobile quarterbacks.
9. Dominique Brown, RB, Louisville
Formerly recruited and got some time at quarterback, the 6’2 running back is more of an athlete they’ll feature than a true runner. Currently listed as a running back and having 140 carries a season ago, expect Brown to be even more of a receiver next year out of the backfield as they try to use his very talented skill set in more ways than just run plays that don’t suit his 6’2 build.
10. Muchie Legaux, QB, Cincinnati
The 6’5, sub 200 pound built quarterback got his chance to play in 3 games last year while Zach Collaros was out, and certainly flashed some potential for the future quarterback of the Bearcats. The Cincy offense is simple to begin with, so Legaux wasn’t able to show much of an understanding of reading defenses or dissecting them at an NFL level. But his size, running ability, downfield arm strength, and natural athleticism make him the most talented passer Butch Jones has ever had at quarterback.