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Big Ten in the NFL Draft: Where Did All the Elite Skill Players Go?

Travis Frederick Cowboys

The Big Ten had an abysmal 2012 football season. Not coincidentally, this was followed by an abysmal showing at the 2013 NFL Draft. Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, selected No. 31 overall by Dallas, was the one Big Ten first round pick (even that was a reach). The conference had fewer players chosen in the Top 40 than Derek Dooley’s 5-7 Tennessee team. Probable first round pick Taylor Lewan returning to Michigan exacerbated this year’s plight. But it fits within a broader B1G talent drop off in recent years.

Big Ten first round picks have declined in both number and quality the past four classes. From 1994 to 2009, the conference averaged 5.5 first round picks and produced at least one Top 10 pick in 14/16 years. The lowest “first player off the board” over that span was Wisconsin’s Wendell Bryant, No. 12 overall in 2002. From 2010 to 2013, the number of picks has fallen to 3.5 per year. The B1G has been shut out of the Top 20 since 2011. The last Top 10 picks from the conference came in 2008.

The first round picks the conference does produce are all linemen. From 1994 to 2009, the B1G produced 3.7 non-lineman first rounders per year. From 2010 to 2013, only one of the conference’s 14 first round picks, Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, did not play on the offensive or defensive lines. He squeaked into the first round at No. 30 overall in 2012. The last B1G offensive skill position player picked in the Top 20 was Ted Ginn Jr. in 2007.

Some of this dry spell may be school specific. Much can be pinned on Michigan and Ohio State. From 1994 to 2009, the B1G rivals produced 2.6 first round picks per draft. They had at least one Top 10 player 11 times in 16 years. Over the past four years, the schools produced just two first round picks. Michigan’s Brandon Graham, No. 13 overall in 2010, was the last player from the two schools picked in the Top 30.

Looking more broadly, one could also lump in Penn State. The Nittany Lions produced 12 first round picks from 1994 to 2003, including six in the top ten. From 2004 to 2013, Penn State had only four first round picks, one coming in the top ten.

Talent input, whether due to demographics or competitiveness, must be considered among the foremost culprits. The conference is improving there, sort of. Ohio State and Michigan have ramped up recruiting under Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke. The Buckeyes brought in Rivals’ No. 4 overall class in 2012 and No. 2 overall in 2013. The Wolverines were close behind at No. 7 in 2012 and No. 5 in 2013. Combined, they took in 22 of Rivals’ Top 150 players in the last cycle.

Looking down the Big Ten table, however, should counter any enthusiasm. Nebraska was the only other program to sign a Top 25 class either year (the SEC had 13 of the Top 30 in 2013). From an NFL Draft production perspective, the conference is losing Ron Zook’s NFL Draft grooming factory, which produced 12 players chosen in the top three rounds from 2008 to 2013 (and 11 conference wins).

Ohio State and Michigan reviving may stem the decay eventually. But 2014 could be another lean year.

[Photo via USA Today Sports]

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