Big Ten's worst NFL draft? It's possible

April, 29, 2013
4/29/13
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Travis FrederickMike McGinnis/Getty ImagesAs the 31st pick, Travis Frederick was the first Big Ten player to be drafted.
The gap between the Big Ten and the SEC not only is widening on the field, but on the NFL draft boards.

While the SEC produced a record 63 picks in the 2013 NFL draft -- eight more than any conference in any draft in the modern era and 32 more than the next-best conference (ACC) in this year's draft -- the Big Ten endured a mostly forgettable three days at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Before going any further, this post isn't meant to knock the Big Ten players who heard their names called Thursday, Friday and Saturday. They worked years for this moment and deserve to celebrate their accomplishments. Congrats to all.

But for the Big Ten as a whole, this draft was a total dud. Was it the league's worst draft ever? If it isn't, it's certainly in the conversation.

The Big Ten produced only 22 draft picks, its lowest total since 1994, when it had 21 (and 11 teams, not 12). In 1994, the Big Ten had the No. 1 overall pick (Ohio State DT Dan Wilkinson), four first-round selections and eight selections in the first three rounds.

You have to wonder how much the Big Ten's damaged national reputation is impacting its draft hopefuls. The SEC's rise has made that conference the first place NFL general managers and player personnel directors look for talent. Although Big Ten players might be comparable to their SEC counterparts in many ways, their competition level might be looked at as a drawback in the final evaluations.

This year, the Big Ten tied with the Big 12 for fourth among leagues in producing picks, but the Big Ten produced fewer selections in the first three rounds (7) than any of the power conferences. Last year, the Big Ten finished with 41 draft picks, just one behind the SEC for the top spot.

Other items of note (tip of the cap to ESPN Stats & Information and the Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises for several of these):

  • [+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
    Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan State's Le'Veon Bell was the second running back taken in the draft.
    Although the Big Ten's national reputation has been an issue for some time, it didn't dramatically impact the draft until this year. The Big Ten has produced at least 27 draft picks every year since the 21-player output in 1994.
  • The Big Ten's four biggest brand-name programs -- Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska -- combined to produce just two picks in the first three rounds (Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Penn State DT Jordan Hill).
  • Nebraska endured its longest drought without a selection since 1970, as running back Rex Burkhead waited until the sixth round to hear Cincinnati call his name with the 190th overall pick. The Huskers didn't have a selection in the first four rounds for the third time in the past six seasons. With just two draftees -- Burkhead and safety Daimion Stafford, who went in the seventh round -- Nebraska had its weakest output since 1969.
  • Michigan went without a draftee in the first four rounds for the first time since 1968 and without one in the first three rounds for just the fifth time since 1970 (1976, 1989, 2006 and 2009 were the others). The Wolverines have had just five players drafted in the past two seasons.
  • Ohio State had just three players -- Hankins, defensive lineman John Simon and offensive tackle Reid Fragel -- drafted from a team that went 12-0 in 2012. Fragel's selection in the seventh round helped Ohio State avoid its smallest draft class since 1968.
  • An Illinois team that went 2-10 last season and 0-8 in Big Ten play led the league with four players drafted. It continues a mystifying trend for the Illini, who have had four players selected in each of the past four NFL drafts, even though the team has endured losing seasons in three of the past five years. Illinois has produced 10 players selected in the first three rounds since 2010, the most of any Big Ten team.
  • As expected, three Big Ten teams -- Northwestern, Minnesota and Indiana -- had no players drafted. Northwestern went 10-3 last season.

Perhaps the best draft news for the Big Ten is that future member Rutgers had seven players selected, tied for the sixth highest total.

Before some initial thoughts on the draft, here's the Big Ten breakdown by round and by team:

First round (1): Wisconsin C Travis Frederick to Dallas (No. 31 overall)

Second round (4): Purdue DT Kawann Short to Carolina (No. 44 overall); Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell to Pittsburgh (No. 48 overall); Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins to New York Giants (No. 49 overall); Wisconsin RB Montee Ball to Denver (No. 58 overall)

Third round (2): Illinois G Hugh Thornton to Indianapolis (No. 86 overall); Penn State DT Jordan Hill to Seattle (No. 87 overall)

Fourth round (5): Illinois DT Akeem Spence to Tampa Bay (No. 100 overall); Michigan State TE Dion Sims to Miami (No. 106 overall); Penn State LB Gerald Hodges to Minnesota (No. 120 overall); Michigan State DE William Gholston to Tampa Bay (No. 126 overall)

Fifth round (4): Michigan RB Denard Robinson to Jacksonville (No. 135 overall); Illinois CB Terry Hawthorne to Pittsburgh (No. 150 overall); Iowa CB Micah Hyde to Green Bay (No. 159 overall); Wisconsin OT Ricky Wagner to Baltimore (No. 168)

Sixth round (2): Michigan G William Campbell to New York Jets (No. 178 overall); Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead to Cincinnati (No. 190 overall)

Seventh round (4): Penn State LB Michael Mauti to Minnesota (No. 213 overall); Illinois DE Michael Buchanan to New England (No. 226 overall); Ohio State OT Reid Fragel to Cincinnati (No. 240 overall); Nebraska S Daimion Stafford to Tennessee (No. 248 overall)

By team

Illinois: 4
Wisconsin: 3
Penn State: 3
Michigan State: 3
Ohio State: 3
Michigan: 2
Nebraska: 2
Purdue: 1
Iowa: 1

Former Penn State wide receiver Justin Brown, who last summer transferred to Oklahoma, was a sixth round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Former Michigan running back Michael Cox, who finished his career at Massachusetts, went to the New York Giants in the seventh round -- one spot above Mr. Irrelevant.

And, finally, some thoughts on the picks, the draft and the Big Ten ...

  • [+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
    Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe Jaguars will to look to use Denard Robinson as a running back.
    The Big Ten still can hang its hat on defensive linemen and running backs. It produced two of the first three running backs selected in Bell and Ball, both of whom went before Alabama bulldozer Eddie Lacy in the second round. I really like the fits for both Bell (Steelers) and Ball (Broncos). Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had been scouting Bell for some time. Ball grew up a Denver Broncos fan and now gets to play alongside Peyton Manning.
  • All six Big Ten underclassmen who declared for the draft were picked before the end of the fourth round. It's hard to fault any of the decisions, and players like Wisconsin's Frederick and Michigan State's Bell clearly made the right call. Michigan State's Gholston possibly could have boosted his draft stock with another year in school, but he ends up in a decent spot with Tampa Bay.
  • The Denard Robinson watch proved to be one of the Big Ten's most intriguing draft story lines. It had a final twist as the Jacksonville Jaguars picked Robinson to play running back. Robinson played quarterback for Michigan but had trained for the draft as a wide receiver. He played a bit of running back at the end of last season after injuring his elbow. I think Jacksonville could be a good spot for Robinson, a Florida native who should be very marketable in the community. He needs time to shape his skills as a pro back but certainly can help a team with his speed.
  • The three positions that continue to hold back the Big Ten are quarterback, wide receiver and cornerback. The league had no traditional quarterbacks or wide receivers drafted. Illinois' Hawthorne and Iowa's Hyde were the only corners taken. Michigan State's Johnny Adams, projected by some as a first-round pick entering last season, didn't hear his name called during the draft. The corner spot should get a boost next year as players like Ohio State's Bradley Roby and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard come out, but the Big Ten still lags way behind in producing NFL-caliber quarterbacks and receivers.
  • It will be interesting to see how draft trends change with certain teams. Can Wisconsin maintain its recent run of elite offensive linemen under the new staff? Illinois' bizarre stretch of big draft classes from struggling teams might be coming to an end. Ohio State and Michigan figure to have much bigger draft outputs next year. Northwestern has upgraded its talent in recruiting, but will it translate into better draft success after the numbers have gone down the past few years?
  • We'll have a full rundown of the Big Ten's undrafted free-agent signings, but I was surprised that players like Michigan State's Adams, Ohio State WR/TE Jake Stoneburner, Penn State C Matt Stankiewitch and Ohio State FB Zach Boren didn't hear their names called.

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