A couple days ago I outlined the 50 best players that would be returning to Big Ten teams next fall. It was a long, exhaustive list that, thanks to the wonders of a mid-January deadline to declare for the NFL draft, was a little too inclusive. Since then both Riley Reiff and Jerel Worthy have declared for the draft, as has Whitney Mercilus. Meanwhile, the initial reports that Montee Ball was leaning toward declaring were proven false as the running back will rejoin his teammates in Madison next year. Such is the folly of talking about returning players in the first week of January, but what's the fun in a "wait and see" approach. Fortune favors the bold.
Now, its time to look at some of the best players from the Big Ten who will be plying their trade on Sundays next fall. The conference, as one would expect, is heavy on wide receivers and defensive players—especially linemen—but light on quarterbacks and running backs.
Here are the players that have the best chance of getting their name called early in the draft.
Jerel Worthy highlights the list of players entering the draft. And outside of tackle Riley Reiff, Worthy might be the highest selection of any Big Ten player.
The mammoth junior defensive tackle was the lynch pin in Michigan State's top ten defense this year. And despite his somewhat unimpressive numbers on the season, his presence was felt on every snap. A true space eater defensive tackle is invaluable for a defense if he is skilled enough. The ability to command double teams, control the point of attack and still get penetration into the backfield frees up pass rushers on the outside to get after the quarterback and linebackers to flow freely to the ball.
Worthy has the size and strength to hold up in the pro game and is a proven performer on a top flight defense. He will make some team very happy in the first round.
This year Marvin McNutt broke all kinds of Iowa receiving records. Now, he is hoping to break into the first round of the draft.
In his career McNutt has caught 170 passes for 2861 yards and 28 touchdowns. Up until his senior year McNutt was splitting receptions with Darrell Johnson-Kulianos, but this last year it was McNutt's turn to take the lead in the receiving game. He responded with eight 100-yard games and four games with two or more touchdowns.
McNutt has the size and athleticism to be an NFL receiver, but one worrying aspect of his game is how easily he has been shut down in games against very good corner backs (Nebraksa and Iowa come to mind). Still, if he can put together a good combine he could see his stock rise immensely.
Outside of Jerel Worthy, Reiff is the best bet to be the highest pick of any Big Ten player this spring.
Reiff is already generating considerable buzz because of his size and athleticism and his stock should continue to grow. At 6'6, 300 lbs he already has the height and length to play left tackle in the NFL. With some time to add weight he could easily become a longtime starter on the blindside for some lucky quarterback and join the recent bunch of Big Ten left tackles playing on Sundays.
Cunningham is in many ways a similar receiver to Marvin McNutt; both are big, physical downfield threats that broke records in their prolific college careers.
Cunningham's most impressive feat has perhaps been just how long he has been productive. In four years for Michigan State, Cunningham has never caught less that 40 passes or totaled less than 500 yards. Also like McNutt, once Cunningham's counterpart Mark Dell graduated it opened up things for a big senior season. This year Cunningham had eight 100-yard games on the way to 1240 yards.
Cunningham isn't particularly tall for a receiver at just 6'2" but he is strong enough to make catches in traffic and over the middle. At multiple points this year he has made big plays for the Spartans when they needed them most.
The last receiver on the list is the Illinois home run threat himself, AJ Jenkins. Jenkins isn't cut from the same cloth that Cunningham and McNutt are but he has been a dominant receiver at times and certainly projects well in this spring's draft.
Jenkins is smaller and more likely to be the kind of guy who runs past you than goes up over top of you to catch the ball. Jenkins made a living doing that this season and by the end of the year had accounted for nearly two-thirds of Nathan Scheelhaase's passing yards despite being the obvious first, second and third option. Jenkins' ability to provide a big play threat under the conditions present in the Illinois passing game should be evidence enough of his potential.
Lavonte David made his two years at Nebraska count. The juco transfer came to the Huskers and immediately made an impact. He is now leaving as one of the better linebacker prospects in the conference.
David doesn't have the all-out size to play middle or strongside linebacker at the next level, but thankfully he has the tools to make an impact on the weakside. David is a supremely gifted athlete who plays downhill, tackles with great form and can move from sideline to sideline.
If the past is any indication, some team is going to choose Josh Oglesby on draft day and be very pleased with that decision for years to come. Oglesby comes from an impressive line of offensive tackles that played college ball at Wisconsin.
Oglesby came into the Wisconsin program the top rated offensive tackle out of high school. After a redshirt year he found his way into the lineup starting three games and appearing in all 13 contests as a freshman, then started ten games as a sophomore before struggling due to injury as a junior.
His senior season saw him start 12 of 13 games and garner first team all-Big Ten recognition for his efforts. Oglesby is big and strong enough to hold up against the pass rush in the NFL, and even if he isn't athletic enough for left tackle—a truly elite skill set is required here—he could easily fill in as a right tackle.
No one saw Whitney Mercilus coming this year; and that includes almost all of the Big Ten's quarterbacks.
Mercilus didn't make much of a splash as an underclassman but his junior year was one of the biggest leaps in production that any player in the nation took. Mercilus led the country in sacks with 14.5 and was sixth in the nation in TFLs with 19.5.
Mercilus leapt onto the scene completely and should be rewarded in the draft because of his incredible production with an early selection in the draft.
Devon Still is another defensive force like Jerel Worthy; a big space eating tackle that controls the center of a defense and makes everyone else's job easier.
And easier it was. The Nittany Lions were a top ten defense and a good deal of credit goes to Still and his play in the trenches. Still was able to rack up 17 TFLs and 4.5 sacks on his way to all conference honors. The Nittany Lion tackle has the physical skill set to immediately play defensive tackle in the NFL.
Mike Martin had a very good season for Michigan and it was his leadership and stellar play on the defensive line that helped orchestrate the dramatic defensive turnaround that Michigan experienced this year.
All this playing out of position. Martin has spent the past few seasons playing either nose guard or one-tech defensive tackle, a position that he is strong enough to handle, but one that doesn't maximize his talents. Martin's best asset is his quickness. And in a system where he can play three-tech tackle he could be a disruptive force on the next level. Even so, Martin is big enough and strong enough to contribute wherever he ends up.