Illinois Football: 10 2021 NFL Draft Prospects to Watch for the Fighting Illini

The Illini's success last season could help these players get more attention from NFL scouts

The Illinois Fighting Illini are back for more in 2020. The team posted its best season during the Lovie Smith era last year (6-7) and made its first bowl appearance since 2014. A handful of players were responsible for much of the team's success in 2019, and most return to keep the momentum going this season. Because of Illinois' resurgence on the gridiron, NFL scouts are taking notice.

 

NFL prospects coming out of Champaign have been few and far between, with only one draftee in the past three years. But since the team is finally turning the rebuilding corner, that could change in the near future. Here are 10 Illini players (in alphabetical order) that could be on NFL scouts' radars this year.

 

Ra'Von Bonner, RB

Despite dealing with injuries as a freshman (missed five games in 2017) and having to work within a rotation of running backs, Bonner has been effective when he does get the ball in his hands. Whether it's running between the tackles or receiving out of the backfield, Bonner has been responsible for 905 yards from scrimmage with 11 total touchdowns. Bonner has the chance to increase those numbers, as he's expected to see more playing time in 2020 following the graduations of Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown. And when that happens, the pro scouts need to take notice.

 

Sydney Brown, DB

In just two seasons, Brown has already made his mark as a key member of the Illini's secondary. He's started every game he's played in (21) and has made his presence felt whenever he's on the field. A safety, Brown also has played nickel, showing his versatility. He collected three interceptions last season, returning one 76 yards for a touchdown in the come-from-behind victory at Michigan State. he was named third-team All-Big Ten by the coaches and honorable mention by the media as a sophomore. Even though he's just a junior, another step forward in his development and production could make him an early-entry candidate for next year's draft.

 

Kendrick Green, OG

Green began his collegiate career as a defensive tackle, but he has since switched to left guard, where he's made 24 straight starts. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the No. 6 offensive guard in the country last year, and he's also a PFF honorable mention All-American and an All-Big Ten honorable mention selection.
 

Jake Hansen, LB

Hansen is slightly undersized (6-1, 225) for the position, but what he lacks in size he makes up for it in fearlessness and toughness. Hansen has 174 tackles, 16 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, and eight forced fumbles to his credit. He's a tackling machine and is one of the leaders of this defense. Hansen, however, will need to add weight to his frame in the NFL.

 

Blake Hayes, P

This Australian native's big leg has been a huge asset to this team. Hayes averaged 44.6 yards per punt, which was good for 18th nationally last year and 11th among returnees. The former Australian rules football player has nine punts of 60 yards or more and 9,369 total punt yards on his resume. Hayes was the 2019 Big Ten Punter of the Year and was named to the All-Big Ten first team.

 

Josh Imatorbhebhe, WR

The USC transfer was Peters' top target in 2019 and led the Illini in catches (33), receiving yards (634), touchdown catches (9), yards per reception (19.2), and longest reception of the season (83 yards). Imatorbhebhe's biggest game last year came at Michigan State. He caught four passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns, which helped spark the biggest comeback in program history (25 points). His size (6-3, 215) makes it difficult for smaller defenders to handle him, especially when it comes to jump balls, and he has very dependable hands.

 

Doug Kramer, C

Kramer's streak of 27 straight starts at center was snapped when he missed the Redbox Bowl against California at the end of last season. An All-Big Ten honorable mention selection by both the coaches and media, Kramer was graded as the No. 6 center in the nation (No. 3 among Power 5 players) by Pro Football Focus entering the Redbox Bowl. The senior is a prime candidate for the Rimington Trophy, which is awarded to the nation's best center.

 

James McCourt, K

McCourt's foot played a big part in Illinois' turnaround campaign. Not only did he connect on three field goals from 50 yards and beyond, he also nailed a 39-yarder as time expired to complete the Illini's historic upset of then-No. 6 Wisconsin. For the season, McCourt went 13-for-19 on field goals, 42-for-43 on extra points, and also handled kickoffs for the team, posting a 65.2 touchback percentage. He finished 11th in the nation and second in the Big Ten in kickoff grade, per Pro Football Focus.

 

Alex Palczewski, OL

He's started 35 straight games along the Illini offensive line at both tackle and guard. He was named to the All-Big Ten third team last season and was an academic all-conference honoree the previous season. His size (6-6, 300) and ability to play multiple positions will serve him well at the next level.

 

Brandon Peters, QB

Peters has become one of the faces of Illinois' newfound success. He transferred to Champaign after getting lost in Michigan's never-ending quarterback shuffle from 2017 to '18. Since arriving on campus, Peters has accounted for 1,884 passing yards, 213 rushing yards, and 21 combined touchdowns. His accuracy could use some improvement (54.5 completion percentage), but Peters has a big arm, he's willing to stay in the pocket and take a hit, and his heart, toughness, and decision-making should help him catch onto an NFL team as a backup.

 

— 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 by Derek Neal, courtesy of fightingillini.com)

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