Michigan has been down for the past decade, but rough times haven’t necessarily curbed the program’s ability to produce next-level talent.
Despite a subpar 5-7 showing in 2014, the Wolverines could have four former standouts selected between April 30 and May 2 at the 2015 NFL draft in Chicago, and at least two of them could go in the early rounds.
Devin Funchess, Michigan’s clear top prospect, would make any NFL offensive coordinator jump for joy. At 6’5” and 235 pounds, the early-entry has all of the physical tools necessary to have a long, successful career as a pro receiver.
At 6’3” and 236 pounds, Jake Ryan, a former captain, could play as an inside or outside linebacker. As a sophomore in 2012, Ryan dominated the Big Ten while subsequently emerging as one of the top run-stoppers in the land. However, an ACL set him back in 2013 and his recovery wasn’t top-notch in 2014, and that was enough to cast a slight shadow of doubt on his potential.
But his motor is of the highest quality. That won’t get overlooked.
Although hampered by character concerns, which were highlighted by charges of domestic violence that led to his dismissal in November, Frank Clark—in terms of talent on the field—could be a solid addition to any defense. The 6’2”, 277-pound defensive end certainly has a nose for the ball and helped anchor a rock-solid D-line in 2014.
Devin Gardner wasn’t invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, but he could be a steal in the “athlete” category. The 6’4”, 210-pound fifth-year senior’s future looks brightest at receiver, but there’s a chance he could end up throwing the ball as well.
The combine is this week in Indianapolis, and the draft is more than two months from now. But now is the time to break down Michigan’s 2015 class of future pros.
Pros: Size, agility and hands (usually)
Cons: Lack of physicality/blocking, hands (sometimes)
This past season was supposed to be The Year of Funchess. The junior started off with a bang, reeling in seven catches for 95 yards and three touchdowns during Week 1’s 52-14 home win over Appalachian State. He then followed with a season-high nine catches for 107 yards—a yard shy of tying his season-high of 108—during an embarrassing 31-0 road loss to Notre Dame.
There was still hope, though. Despite a 1-1 start, Funchess was primed to go off at any moment. Instead, he cooled off without a moment’s notice. He finished the year with 62 catches for a meager 733 yards and four touchdowns. As a sophomore, he caught 49 passes for 748 yards and six scores—and he averaged 15.3 yards per catch compared to just 11.8 in 2014.
Walter Football slots Funchess as the No. 8-ranked receiver of the upcoming class. The mock draft site projects him to go anywhere between the first and fourth rounds, which is a broad, yet fair, forecast. There is a good chance Funchess’ size and athleticism will trump doubts and prompt teams to take a chance late in the first or early in the second. There just aren’t many guys his size who can make the fantastic look ordinary, yet incredibly graceful.
Pros: Leadership, demeanor, toughness, “it” quality, versatility
So he’s not the biggest NFL-bound linebacker in town, but Ryan packs a punch that’d shake the NFL’s most rugged ball-carriers. He is a student of the game, a pure student of the game.
Greg Mattison, the former defensive coordinator turned D-line coach, constantly praised Ryan’s attitude and leadership abilities during this past season. Michigan had a top-15 total defense, and Ryan was a main contributor.
The Wolverines were dreadfully inconsistent, but those hiccups didn’t keep him from finishing with 112 tackles, the second-most in the Big Ten. Nor did the bumps in the road stop him from averaging 1.17 tackles for loss per game, the fifth-best mark in the league.
Walter Football tabs Ryan as the No. 9-ranked linebacker of the 2015 class. The mock draft site projects him as a third- to fifth-rounder, which, again, is a fair assessment. Ryan’s knowledge of the game could propel him to an immediate role on special teams, or even into the seat of a backup linebacker.
Pros: Loves contact, relentless nature, speed
Cons: Character, character, character
Cutting Clark, an Ohio native, just days before playing Ohio State, must have been one of the toughest decisions of Brady Hoke’s career. During this past season, the former Michigan coach constantly spoke of Clark’s growth and maturity, which was reassuring, to a degree, given Clark’s previous legal troubles (felony home invasion).
However, back in mid-November, Clark allegedly attacked his girlfriend at a resort in Sandusky, Ohio, according to a report by Fox Sports Detroit’s Dave Hogg. Hoke reacted to the reported incident immediately and removed Clark from the roster.
Hoke sent a message, but with that said, Clark’s off-field issues could get overlooked due to his ability to sack the quarterback and depending on the outcome of the current charges.
Walter Football positions Clark as the No. 23-ranked defensive end of the next class. The site also appropriately designates him as a future seventh-rounder or free agent.
Pros: Athleticism, performance under pressure (sometimes)
Despite a broken right foot, Gardner strung together one of the most memorable and heroic quarterback performances in recent Michigan football memory during his team’s 42-41 loss to Ohio State in 2013. Then a junior, Gardner, who had been moved to wide receiver the year prior, sliced the Buckeyes for an astonishing 450 yards and four touchdowns.
He completed 32 of 45 passes, but had he completed 33, the Wolverines would have won—his do-or-die two-point conversion toss fell incomplete, but it was a valiant effort nonetheless.
Gardner took a beating during his final two years. He was essentially a walking target, having been sacked 34 times in 2013 and 26 in 2014, but he continuously forged ahead, despite critics. He’s certainly had his ups and downs, both physically and emotionally, but his athleticism may be too much for NFL executives to ignore.
It’s important to remember one thing: Before being hammered with six sacks by Michigan State in 2013, Gardner was 9-3 as a starter and one of the Big Ten’s best in terms of quarterback efficiency. There is a skilled and poised athlete somewhere in the former Inkster star.
The right coach and organization will find and further develop him.
Walter Football pegs Gardner as the No. 11-ranked quarterback of the 2015 draft class. The site suggests that he’ll be a seventh-rounder or free agent. Overall, that forecast is in the ballpark. But don’t be shocked to see him creep into the sixth round because, again, the best of Gardner could be around the corner.
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
Unless otherwise noted, all draft information comes courtesy of Walter Football. Statistics and other player-related information were obtained from MGoBlue and ESPN.