With their thumbs on stopwatches and eyes on the 40-yard line, the scouts waited for the NFL’s next great player to run by and dazzle them.
They had traveled great distances to the McClain Athletic Center in Madison for the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Day on March 6 to find one thing: talent. Representatives from 30 of the 32 NFL teams—from the lowly Jaguars, who pick second overall in the NFL Draft, to the Super Bowl champion Ravens—were there, looking at the former Badgers who were set to enter the professional ranks. The scouts timed the runs, counted the weight reps, scrutinized the drills, and analyzed almost every step the players took.
However, at the end of the workout, when the scouts climbed into their cars to head to the next pro day and the next search for talent, not too much had changed. There were still a dozen Badger hopefuls, along with countless other Big Ten players, who had a shared trait: They likely weren’t going to hear their names called by Commissioner Roger Goodell during the first round on April 25.
“The Big Ten is down this year, and has been the last few seasons,” an NFC scout, speaking on condition of anonymity, told ChicagoSide. “I think there’s a visible difference in depth of speed when you’re comparing SEC teams and Big Ten teams.
“Alabama, LSU, and even Georgia are prospect factories right now. Those schools have blue chippers stacked up. The Big Ten doesn’t boast that kind of talent or depth.”
Many of the analysts who cover the draft feel the same. ESPN’s Mel Kiper, Jr. (Insider only), NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks, and FOX Sports’ Peter Schrager each released a mock draft this week. The three analysts disagreed as to where the top picks would go or when the first quarterback will be taken off the board. But all three concluded that no Big Ten player would be selected in the first round. NFL Network guru Mike Mayock released a list of the draft’s top 100 players, regardless of position: The top player from the conference is Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short, who ranks 40th overall.
If the predictions hold up, it would mark the first time in the Super Bowl era (since 1967) that no player from the conference has been taken in the first round.
To Adam Rittenberg, who blogs about the 12 Big Ten schools for ESPN.com, the news isn’t surprising. He’s seen the talent level in the conference slipping the past few years. It all starts with the high school recruiting, and according to Rittenberg, many of the teams in the conference have struggled on that front for years because of their inability to draw top players to the Midwest. Recent coaching hires like Urban Meyer at Ohio State and Brady Hoke at Michigan may be turning that around, but the process of building the league back into the powerhouse it once was is a slow one.
“By almost every measure, nearly every recruiting service out there says there are better players and a larger concentration of recruits in other areas. They’re in the South, they’re in the West, they’re in Texas, they’re in Florida, so it’s harder to bring those players into the Big Ten,” Rittenberg said. “Which has definitely been a factor in recruiting in the Big Ten during that same stretch, recruiting rankings have definitely taken a dip. This past year, you saw Ohio State and Michigan bring in top ten classes, but really nobody else in the conference is at that level.”
The Big Ten’s talent drop-off, when compared to other conferences around the country, is especially noticeable at what scouts call the skill positions: quarterback, running back, wide receiver and defensive backs (cornerbacks and safeties). Where speed and athleticism are needed, the Big Ten lacks. Some notes:
- Though all three of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL that came from the conference (Michigan’s Tom Brady, Purdue’s Drew Brees and Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson) are considered upper-echelon players, none were first-round picks.
- In fact, the last Big Ten signal caller to be taken in the first round was Penn State’s Kerry Collins, by the Panthers in 1995.
- In the past five drafts, 15 receivers were taken in the first round. Only one is a Big Ten alum—Illinois’ A.J. Jenkins, by the 49ers in 2012. He finished his rookie season with no receptions and was only active for three games.
- Only one Big Ten alum finished last season in the top 20 in the NFL in rushing—Iowa’s Shonn Greene, a third-round pick of the Jets in 2009, who was 14th in the league with 1,063 yards.
- As the NFL has become more of a passing league, teams are spending more early first-round picks on defensive backs. In the past three drafts, 15 DBs went in the first round. Eight of those players were from the Southeastern Conference; not one was from the Big Ten.
Rittenberg cited a lack of skill-position talent as a primary reason the entire conference has slumped in terms of producing elite NFL prospects. Oftentimes they work in tandem, with a gifted quarterback improving the stock of a wide receiver, or vice versa. The Big Ten has had very few of them, with many of their prolific playmakers, like Michigan’s Denard Robinson this year or Indiana’s Antwaan Randle El more than a decade ago, forced to change positions in the pros.
Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, who led the Badgers to three consecutive Big Ten titles and holds the Division-I record 83 touchdowns scored, disagrees that the talent in the conference is lacking. He’s projected to be a second- or third-round pick this April, after showing some impressive speed to the scouts at the pro day workout, clocking in at 4.46 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Afterward, he said the experts who see a decline in talent out of the conference don’t respect the style of play teams like Wisconsin use.
“The Big Ten is a great conference, we do play great football here, but they can say whatever they want to say,” Ball said. “Wisconsin runs a pro-style offense, running behind the big fellas up front, and having to pass protect. So I do think it has prepared me for the NFL.”
Ball mentioned the “big fellas up front,” and historically, the export the Big Ten has most often delivered to the NFL has been athletic and physical lineman. In recent years, players like Jake Long and J.J. Watt have entered the pros and thrived, and many expected Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan to do the same this spring. But Lewan opted to stay in school for his senior year, perhaps because the strength of the 2013 draft class are linemen on both sides of the ball. But without the All-American Wolverine in the group, there are no Big Ten players expected to be taken early.
Seven Badger linemen have been taken in either the first, second or third round since 2009. This year, two more—center Travis Frederick and offensive tackle Ricky Wagner—hope to join that group. “One of the reasons I came to Wisconsin is because they produced linemen the way that they did. The legacy is so great, and it’s important for me to live up to it,” Frederick said.
Scouts, of course, don’t care about legacy. It’s the stopwatches that matter to them.
As one AFC scout said after the Badgers’ workout was over, “We can’t be worried about where (prospects) played their college ball. Everything is based on what they can do, and who else is out there.”