Big Ten Q&A: Which Big Ten 1st-Round Pick Will Have the Best NFL Career?

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterApril 29, 2016

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  (L-R) Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #4 overall by the Dallas Cowboys during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
Jon Durr/Getty Images

Spring football may be over in Big Ten country, but the conference has still managed to stay at the forefront of the college football world.

Thanks to Thursday night's opening round of the NFL draft, the Big Ten has managed to maintain its national presence, with six of the league's former players being selected in the draft's first 31 picks.

Oh, and then there's that whole satellite camp ban thing, which the NCAA overturned on Thursday—a de facto victory for Jim Harbaugh and other conference coaches in favor of the practice. All things considered, it's been a busy week for the Big Ten in what's supposed to be the start of the quiet period in college football.

With that in mind, let's get to our weekly Big Ten Q&A. This week, we'll tackle last night's opening round of the draft, the conference's breakout defensive player, Ohio State's biggest threat and one of the draft's stranger Big Ten-related controversies.

As always, you can tweet your questions to me each week @BenAxelrod.

Let's get started.

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When I first got this question, my initial reaction was to go with third overall pick Joey Bosa.

For all of the talk about the former Ohio State defensive end's sliding draft stock—such as from CBS Sports' Benjamin Allbright—I thought that a lot of people were forgetting this was several draft prognosticators' top overall prospect heading into the 2015 season.

But as Thursday's night's first round played out, I found myself focusing more on fit when I had this question in mind.

And when it comes to that, it's hard to find a better blend than Ezekiel Elliott and his new home with the Dallas Cowboys.

After all, the last time the former Buckeyes running back found himself in Arlington's AT&T Stadium, he was rushing for 246 yards and four touchdowns in Ohio State's College Football Playoff National Championship victory over Oregon at the end of the 2014 season.

Now, Elliott will be rushing behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL on a team that typically finds itself in the Super Bowl conversation.

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Draftee Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State arrives to the 2016 NFL Draft on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Kena Krutsinger/Getty Images)
Kena Krutsinger/Getty Images

While the Cowboys were able to grab the reigning Big Ten MVP with the fourth overall pick of the draft, Dallas isn't your typical team picking in the top five. After a 12-4 campaign in 2014 resulted in a controversial loss in the divisional round of the playoffs, the Cowboys suffered a 4-12 season in 2015 due to quarterback Tony Romo's injury-plagued year.

Now Romo is back, as is All-Pro wideout Dez Bryant, future Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten and an offensive line that's paved the way for top-10 rushing attacks in each of the past two seasons.

Add Elliott to the mix, and you have the rare combination of a potential playoff team adding one of the draft's top-level talents, which could result in a fruitful relationship for years to come.

For the rest of the Big Ten players taken, their respective trajectories will be a little tougher to predict and will be dependent on a number of factors. But for now, Elliott to the Cowboys has all the makings of a home run pick.

I'm not sure if it qualifies as a "breakout" per se, because I think he's already pretty good, but I'd be surprised if Illinois defensive end Dawuane Smoot isn't a household name—and potential first-round pick—by the time his senior season comes to a close.

After recording 40 tackles, 15 for a loss and eight sacks in 2015, the 6'3", 265-pounder actually toyed with the idea of entering this year's NFL draft, according to's Josh Norris.

Instead, Smoot opted to return to Champaign for his senior season, where he'll unexpectedly find himself playing for an NFL-caliber coaching staff with Lovie Smith's arrival at Illinois.

Remember the way Adewale Ogunleye used to terrorize quarterbacks coming off the edge during Smith's days with the Chicago Bears or Jacquies Smith's breakout seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? That's the type of impact Smoot could have the Fighting Illini defense in 2016.

After being just an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection in 2015, there's no reason Smoot shouldn't be on one of the league's first or second teams, if not competing for conference—or perhaps national—Defensive Player of the Year awards in the coming year.

Other defensive names to keep an eye on throughout the conference include Ohio State's Sam Hubbard, Michigan State's Demetrius Cooper and Penn State's Garrett Sickels.

But Smoot is the one who I have the most confidence in at this point, as the Illinois defensive end has arguably the highest ceiling to reach in 2016.

One thing I've found interesting in the couple of months since I started doing these Q&A pieces is that I often get variations of this question, referring to Ohio State as the clear-cut class of the Big Ten despite replacing 16 starters—including five first-round picks—from last year's team.

Meanwhile, Iowa returns a significant portion of production from last year's team that found itself one win away from the College Football Playoff, Michigan State has won two of the past three Big Ten titles and Michigan is only getting better.

But when you look at the way the Buckeyes have recruited under Urban Meyer and the fact that OSU will possess the best quarterback in the conference in J.T. Barrett, it's understandable why some would view the Buckeyes as the Big Ten favorites.

In fact, all things considered, it's probably the correct assessment.

As for the question at hand, the obvious pick is Michigan State, considering the Spartans aren't just the only Big Ten team to beat Ohio State since Meyer took over in 2012, but they've done it twice.

This year, the matchup in the Big Ten's hottest on-field rivalry will take place in East Lansing, where the Buckeyes' fifth-year head coach is actually undefeated (2-0).

COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 21:  Quarterback Tyler O'Connor #7 of the Michigan State Spartans looks for running room in the third quarter against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium on November 21, 2015 in Columbus, Ohio. Michigan State defeated Ohio Stat
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

But as far as sleeper picks are concerned, one team I'd keep my eye on if I were Ohio State is Nebraska.

While their Nov. 5 showdown will be played in Columbus, Ohio Stadium doesn't necessarily offer the home-field advantage it used toespecially if the game is played during the day, as it very well could be at that point in the season.

Returning 94 percent of their offensive production from a year ago, according to's Bill Connelly, the Cornhuskers should be a well-oiled machine in their second year under Mike Riley and could have playoff aspirations of their own at that point in the season.

Whether or not they'll have enough firepower to beat the Buckeyes remains to be seen, but when it comes to Ohio State's schedule in 2016, that game certainly stands out.

For the uninitiated, this question is in reference to an April 26 report regarding former Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple.

According to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinelan unnamed NFL scout had a rather unusual concern about Apple heading into Thursday's draft. "I worry about him because of off-the-field issues," the scout said. "The kid has no life skills. At all. Can't cook. Just a baby."

From there, the quote took on a life of its own, with Apple's mother, Elliott and Eli himself responding on Twitter.

Still, Eli didn't exactly deny it.

Nevertheless, the NFL didn't seem to care—at least not the New York Giants, who took the former Buckeyes corner with the draft's 10th overall pick. That's higher than most prognosticators pinned the New Jersey native, who will now return to Tri-State area, where cooking is, fortunately for him, optional.

So to answer the question, I don't see culinary classes becoming a part of Meyer's regimen for his players any time soon. Especially as long as it doesn't prevent them from landing in the top 10 of the NFL draft.

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.