It isn’t unusual, and perhaps the acceptance is what’s most concerning.
For the sixth consecutive year, the Big Ten was absent from the top 10 in the NFL draft, as Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman noted:
After producing 10 Top-10 picks from 2003-08, the Big Ten has now gone six years without a Top-10 pick.— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) May 9, 2014
Before diving any deeper, it’s only fair to acknowledge a few noteworthy bullet points. The first being that former Michigan offensive lineman Taylor Lewan was selected at No. 11 in the 2014 draft by the Tennessee Titans, just outside the top 10.
It’s also worth noting that the No. 11 pick in the 2011 NFL draft was none other than former Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt. The Texans were thrilled to see the Big Ten’s streak continue on because they landed one of the NFL’s top defenders along the way.
There are always exceptions, and assuming the Big Ten has struggled to produce quality NFL talent over the past six seasons is false. It has. Not everyone has been J.J. Watt in terms of production, but the conference has delivered players at various positions who have turned into solid NFL pros.
With those disclaimers out in the open, the Big Ten’s lack of talent near the top of these drafts is alarming. It’s not one year, or three years, it’s six years: one and a half graduation cycles.
Given recent trends in the recruiting world, it’s also not really hard to believe.
While the Big Ten has been absent from the top 10 in the NFL draft over the past six years, the SEC—the nation’s premier recruiter and developer of talent at the moment—has heard its name called 24 times.
Beyond simply having a presence near the top when it comes to the NFL draft, the Big Ten’s overall presence compared to the SEC delivers a similar discrepancy.
In the past six years, the Big Ten has produced 22 first-round draft picks. In that time span, the SEC has produced 58 first-round picks (including 23 in the past two years alone).
Things don’t just miraculously end up this way. The scouting process and overall evaluation of talent has improved from the NFL level down. It’s still incredibly difficult to project players—especially when it comes to quarterbacks—but it’s light years ahead of where it used to be a decade ago.
This leads us to recruiting, the long corridor to the NFL draft. The process of projecting the nation’s elite high school players to the next level begins here. And like NFL scouting, the results are mixed.
Not every 5-star player turns out to be a first-round pick. Along those same lines, not every 2-star player pans out to be a lifelong backup. There are outliers, irregularities and situations that arise that serve as lessons going forward.
For proof of this, look at the paths of former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and former Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack. Each went in the Top Five of this year’s draft, and each had unique recruiting expectations.
Clowney was the consensus No. 1 overall player, according to 247Sports (and everyone else) in 2011, while Mack was a 2-star talent and the No. 2,212 rated player, according to 247Sports’ Composite Rankings.
Things happen, players develop at different rates and the recruiting world is deemed imperfect plenty. But overall, landing more 4- and 5-star players will lead to bigger, faster and better overall teams. That’s not rocket science; it’s simply connecting the most recent dots.
Since 2009, the Big Ten has not been a regular in 247Sports’ overall team rankings. The SEC, the nation’s premier recruiting fixture by a significant margin, has only increased its presence.
Notice anything similar? You should. The differences between the two conferences in both the recruiting and first-round draft world follow a similar path. As has been the theme during the exercise, there's also nothing about this latest chart that should surprise.
The staples for the Big Ten on the recruiting front are obvious: Ohio State and Michigan have each done their part when it comes to recruiting. Penn State, off to a blazing start with its 2015 class, could enter this conversation under James Franklin in years to come.
There have been fantastic college players to go through the conference and teams—such as Michigan State just this past season—that were developed better than just about every other program in the country.
Overall, however, the sheer depth of talent simply has not been present. And that’s where the NFL draft concerns and lack of top-10 draft picks begin to become a factor.
As is, the Big Ten gets a bum rap. Some of this is deserved. Some of it is not.
There’s no question that the teams in the conference can recruit better. In fact, they have to recruit better in order to rid themselves of the endless stream of ridicule. Such criticisms become deafening during events such as national signing day, the NFL draft and, most importantly, the national championship.
That’s where the NFL draft drought comes full circle. Forget about what NFL scouts believe in terms of projections. How are the players producing at the college level? In recent years, with the national championship out of reach, the answer has been obvious.
Sending one player in the top 10 of the 2015 draft won’t suddenly change that for the B1G, but there is an obvious correlation. The streak speaks volumes to the bigger problem at hand.
If the Big Ten can recruit better, it will field more quality teams from the top down. And if it can grab more quality players—4- and 5-star high schoolers with glowing physical ability—the likelihood of some of these players being taken early on the draft will increase.
It's not a perfect equation, but as the SEC has shown, it typically goes hand in hand. It's on the Big Ten schools beyond the national staples to help change that. Although that's easier said than done.