2013 Big Ten Football Defensive Stars Sure to Succeed in the NFL

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJuly 16, 2013

2013 Big Ten Football Defensive Stars Sure to Succeed in the NFL

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    Big Ten Football has seen better days. The conference struggled through its second consecutive poor postseason last year, going 2-5 in bowl games after a 4-6 showing in 2011.

    But even as its teams struggle to peak at the right time, the Big Ten continues to be a steady pipeline of NFL talent. Forty-one Big Ten players were drafted to the NFL in 2012 (per Phil Steele's College Football Preview), second in the NCAA and first among conferences not named the Southeastern.

    Even after losing so many draft picks from last year, the Big Ten is loaded once again with pro-caliber players in 2013—especially on defense, the conference's long-time strength. The offenses may struggle, at times, but that has a lot to do with the pro-level players they play against. 

8. ILB Max Bullough, Michigan State

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    Reports of the NFL's uptempo shift have been slightly exaggerated. The game is moving in that direction, sure, but not at the rate or magnitude some would have you believe. 

    A big, bruising, downhill linebacker like Bullough doesn't have the same value he had 10 years ago, but there's still a place for him on every NFL roster. He needs to work on his coverage skills if he wants to play on third down, and to be honest, there's a real chance he never gets there.

    But on first and second down, goal-line sets and (at the very least) special teams, Bullough will always be a highly efficient defensive player. He might not have the sexiest career on this list, but there's a legitimate chance he has the longest. 

7. DE Noah Spence, Ohio State

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    Spence was one of the top recruits in the country last year, earning a 99.74 out of 100.00 on 247Sports' composite—the fifth-highest grade in the country.

    Reps were sparing in his true freshman year as Spence was blocked by Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year John Simon and senior Nathan Williams. But all four starters are gone from last years Ohio State defensive line, which means Spence and partner-in-crime Adolphus Washington will be handed the reins.

    Even in limited playing time, Spence did enough to make the All-Big Ten Freshman team last year. With the size and explosive first step needed to get around the corner, he could make one of the All-Big Ten non-freshman teams in 2013.

6. DT DaQuan Jones, Penn State

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    Redshirt freshman Deion Barnes made the biggest waves on Penn State's defensive line last year, but his linemate DaQuan Jones is the one who has NFL scouts the most intrigued.

    Standing 6'3'' and weighing 333 pounds, Jones has an ideal size and frame for the next level. He's big enough to succeed in the NFL and at times it shows on tape, but he hasn't figured out a way to perform at a consistent speed.

    Though Jones had only 22 tackles and two tackles for loss last season, big things are expected in 2013. He'll be a mid-round draft pick at the very least, and a good NFL coach should be able to mold his physical gifts into solid production.

5. CB Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State

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    In almost any other conference, Dennard would be the league's premier corner. Here in the Big Ten, he falls behind one Ohio State Buckeye, but was still good enough to earn All-Big Ten honors in 2012—despite being second on the depth chart.

    With Johnny Adams (now with the Houston Texans) out of the picture, Dennard will have to assume a bigger leadership role as a senior. So long as that doesn't get in the way of his production, though, the lockdown corner from Dry Branch, Ga. should still be a high draft pick come April.

    NFL.com's Gil Brandt ranked Dennard the second-best senior cornerback prospect, behind just TCU's Jason Verrett. That's high praise, but it's not undeserved given his long and successful career at Michigan State.

4. LB Ryan Shazier, Ohio State

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    Shazier did everything for the 12-0 Buckeyes last year, leading the Big Ten with 17 tackles for loss, finishing seconding with 70 solo tackles, third with three forced fumbles, eighth with five sacks and ninth with 12 passes defended.

    Now entering his junior season, Shazier is also shaping up as one of the best NFL prospects in college football. NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah said he prefers Shazier to former Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree, who was selected by the St. Louis Rams in the first round of last year's draft.

    If Shazier can repeat—or dare we say, improve upon—last year's production, there's no reason he won't follow suit.

3. DE Adolphus Washington, Oho State

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    Washington and Noah Spence were Ohio State's top two recruits last year and despite a stacked defensive line in Columbus, both made their presence felt, at times, as true freshman.

    Spence has already been discussed, but Washington actually had the stronger year. In only four games of registered stats, he managed to finish with nine tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and a forced fumble.

    Standing 6'4'' with a long, bulky frame, he's a physical specimen tailored to the rigors of NFL football. And though he's a little raw technically, with two more mandatory years at Ohio State ahead of him, those defects are likely to fix themselves before he declares. 

2. DT Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota

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    Hageman isn't a household name and unless Minnesota has an out-of-nowhere successful season, that isn't likely to change in the next few months.

    Once the confetti falls in Pasadena, though, and Todd McShay starts gracing every morning episode of Sportscenter, Hageman will finally start to earn some recognition. That holds doubly true once the NFL Combine starts.

    A former tight end moved to defensive tackle, Hageman was listed the No. 2 "physical freak" in college football by CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman. The only player listed ahead of him was one Jadeveon Clowney.

    At 6'6'' and 312 pounds, Hageman clocked a 10-yard sprint in 1.57 seconds (.07 faster than Terron Armstead, the OL who ran a 4.71 40-yard dash at this year's Combine), measured a vertical of 36 inches (three higher than any DT at this year's combine) and can allegedly still throw down a 360 dunk.

    With some good NFL positional coaching, Hageman should translate those physical gifts into maximized potential. 

1. CB Bradley Roby, Ohio State

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    Roby is the latest in a long line of blue-chip Ohio State cornerback prospects, and though their recent NFL history is mottled by a few busts, Roby appears to be as safe as they come.

    He's only 5'11'' but as NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah pointed out, he's "explosive, fluid and plays bigger than his size." Last year those fluid cover skills helped Roby lead the Big Ten with 19 passes defended, earning him a much-deserved spot on the conference's First Team.

    But perhaps more telling than stats or accolades is the praise Roby received from NFL Draft Insider Tony Pauline, who called him "terrific in all aspects" and "one of the most complete corners since Champ Bailey."

    Comparisons like that are hard to come by and even harder to ignore.