The Northwestern Wildcats football program has certainly grown and evolved under head coach Pat Fitzgerald. What used to be known as an academic institution has become a factory for NFL talent in recent seasons. Since 2010, 13 Northwestern football players have been selected in the draft with quarterback Clayton Thorson (5th round, 167th overall by Philadelphia) becoming the latest.
Looking ahead to this year's team, a handful of Wildcats have shown their NFL potential during their time on campus. Here are five in particular that are likely to draw scouts' attention with an eye towards the 2020 NFL Draft.
1. Paddy Fisher, LB (Jr., 6-4, 241)
Fisher is a sure-fire NFL-ready prospect that's already showing up on lists of the top players expected to be in next year's draft. From the moment he took the field for Northwestern, Fisher has made an impact on both his team and on opposing offenses. He has been among the team leaders in tackles, tackles for a loss, and forced fumbles as both a freshman and sophomore. Production is not a question as he's already recorded 227 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, eight forced fumbles, five pass deflections, two interceptions, and a sack in his career. He's good in both pass coverage and against the run. Even though he's just a junior, it's entirely possible Fisher will forgo his last year of eligibility and enter his name into the 2020 NFL Draft.
2. Bennett Skowronek, WR (Sr., 6-4, 211)
The tallest receiver on the Wildcats roster is best remembered for the go-ahead touchdown catch against Iowa last season that secured the Big Ten West Division title. Skowronek has turned into the Wildcats No. 1 receiver as he enters his senior season with 98 receptions for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns. His combination of size and speed makes him difficult to defend, and he's proven himself in big games. Today's NFL is always in need of wide receivers, so Skowronek could wind up on teams' draft boards if he puts together an impressive 2019 campaign.
3. Riley Lees, WR (Jr., 6-0, 206)
Lees is just a junior, so 2019 may be more about establishing his draft stock for the following year. But he's definitely putting himself on more people's radars after taking a step forward this past season. Lees has been effective as a receiver (40 rec., 449 yds., 5 TDs in two seasons) and also has been used in the running game, picking up 35 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries in 2018. He saved his best for last, scoring two touchdowns in Northwestern's come-from-behind win over Utah in the Holiday Bowl, and will look to build off of that and show scouts he can be productive on the next level.
4. Joe Gaziano, DE (Sr., 6-4, 275)
Heading into his fourth straight year as a starter, Gaziano is one of the most underrated pass rushers in college football. The Massachusettes native has led the team in sacks two straight years and has held his own against some of the best offensive lines in FBS. Besides his 21 sacks, Gaziano has racked up 103 total tackles, 32 tackles for a loss, 10 pass deflections, five forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries in his career. A strong senior showing will only increase the possibility of Gaziano getting a shot with an NFL team.
5. Trae Williams, DB (Sr., 6-0, 209)
The Wildcats' recent history of excellent defensive backs speaks for itself. And Williams is well on his way to being the next one as his numbers have steadily increased over the last two years. Williams has made an impact with his coverage skills (two INTs, 10 pass breakups) and shown an ability to produce a game-changing play (three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries). Projected to be a starter this season, Williams will get plenty of opportunities to prove himself against some of the best wide receivers the Big Ten has to offer, which is sure to be noticed by scouts.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of nusports.com)