Just a few years ago, there were question marks about the Big Ten’s ability to churn out NFL talent in large numbers. That’s no longer the case however, as the league is sending an impressive 51 players to the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine this year.
Leading the way is Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan squad, which has more players in Indianapolis this week (Feb. 28-March 6) than any other with a whopping 14 former Wolverines expected to run, jump and interview for scouts and coaches galore. Rival Ohio State isn’t too far behind in terms of numbers either and could again have the most first-rounders of any school when all is said and done from the NFL Draft.
Who’s under the most pressure and who’s destined to be a future star on Sundays? Here’s a look at 10 Big Ten players to keep an eye on when the Combine gets under way and what they can do to solidify their status.
1. Jabrill Peppers, ATH, Michigan
Peppers was a regular on the college football awards circuit thanks to his versatility at Michigan and now it is time for NFL evaluators to sort out how that will transition to the pros. Is he an outside linebacker? Is he a safety? Is he a return man who has a package of plays on both sides of the ball? All that flexibility will no doubt add to Peppers’ value but it will be fascinating to see scouts try to peg his next role. As a result, there might be no more interesting player to watch at the Combine.
2. Marshon Lattimore, DB, Ohio State
It’s going to be an interesting battle right up to draft day to see whether Lattimore or former Buckeyes teammate Malik Hooker is the first defensive back taken. With Hooker missing the Combine due to offseason surgery, there’s an opening for Lattimore to state his case to teams. With a ton of teams needing corners in the top 10, this is a player who could use a great showing in Indy to propel himself to a big pay day.
3. Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan
Size and a slight build may be the only thing that will keep Lewis from the first round but a strong Combine could keep him firmly in the mix to be a top-50 pick when all is said and done. He’s one of the premiere cover corners to come out of college the past few seasons but will still need to prove that is going to translate to the next level. It doesn’t help that he’ll be constantly compared to the big-time prospects from rival Ohio State but Lewis has a chance to impress in other ways this week.
4. Taco Charlton, DL, Michigan
Charlton checks just about every box you want when looking for in a pass rusher. He’s athletic, long and should get plenty of folks enamored with what he can do in trying to get to the quarterback. While he’ll need to answer questions about inconsistency during his time with the Wolverines, it’s possible some eye-popping testing numbers help enhance his case to be one of the first edge rushers off the board.
5. Desmond King, DB, Iowa
King was such a steady player for the Hawkeyes over the years and played a big role in the team’s surprising run to the Rose Bowl two seasons ago when he won the Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back. He won’t get the buzz that some of the other top prospects in the secondary will but this will nevertheless be an intriguing second day pick for some team. If he can shake off questions about his speed and quickness during testing, King could certainly see his stock rise quickly.
6. Malik McDowell, DL, Michigan State
McDowell could be one of the most interesting prospects in the draft and teams will surely put him through the paces at Lucas Oil Stadium to figure out whether he can be an All-Pro based on his abilities or if he’ll struggle during his early days in the league. Physically, he has all the tools in the world and should have added value for teams given that he can play in either a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment. Perhaps he can write off his sub-par final season with the Spartans due to injury but a good Combine appearance could see talk of becoming a first rounder re-appear.
7. Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
McMillan was a tackling machine at OSU and one of the most productive players on a stellar defense the past three seasons. How that translates to the NFL is a bit unknown however so showing he’s athletic enough to play all the time will be key when he goes through drills and runs in the testing section. He could be a name that goes later than many college fans expect come draft time but a strong performance could help prevent that slide and help turn McMillan into a solid starter for years to come.
8. Ryan Ramczyk, OL, Wisconsin
Let’s face it, the Combine isn’t the best of settings for offensive linemen aside from the bench press. While Ramczyk will miss most of the on-field testing anyway as a result of an injury, he still has a chance to become the first offensive lineman taken in the draft with a good showing in Indy by checking out on the medical side and proving he has plenty of strength to go with the highly regarded athleticism he already possesses.
9. Gareon Conley, DB, Ohio State
Conley isn’t quite the prospect as some of his fellow Buckeyes but a few good measurables in Indy could make him an early pick. He has plenty of game tape, solid size and should run fast enough to draw the attention of plenty of teams looking for help at cornerback. If he can prove that he’s much more of an all-around cover guy with a fluid showing during drills, there could be plenty of buzz that starts to build around Conley.
10. T.J. Watt, LB, Wisconsin
Watt’s last name will be a blessing and a curse when it comes to the Combine, as older brother J.J. will get brought up plenty of times (in addition to what likely will be a ton of commercials during TV coverage of the event). Still, he impressed last season as a starter and there’s plenty of positive attributes trending his way and he could continue to climb up draft boards with a strong outing at Lucas Oil.
Don’t forget about: Curtis Samuel (WR, Ohio State), Pat Elfein (OL, Ohio State), Noah Brown (WR, Ohio State), Riley Bullough (LB, Michigan State), Corey Clement (RB, Wisconsin), Sojourn Shelton (DB, Wisconsin), Garrett Sickels (DL, Penn State), Chris Godwin (WR, Penn State), C.J. Beathard (QB, Iowa), Jehu Chesson (WR, Michigan), Ifeadi Odenigbo (DL, Northwestern)
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.