With the NFL Draft around the corner, it’s time for another 3-on-3, a three pack of questions about Northwestern and Big Ten NFL Draft prospects. A few of Wildcats have a chance to be drafted, while a number should find homes as undrafted free agents. Three of our staffers (Michael Stern, Matt McHugh and Ari Ross) answered three questions in this edition of WNUR 3-on-3.
1. Both Dan Vitale and Dean Lowry should hear their names called this weekend at the NFL Draft, but the question is who will hear their name called first? Both preformed amicably at the combine and while Vitale may be the higher rated prospect, he plays a position that certainly won’t be drafted too high. So who will be the first Northwestern player drafted in the 2016 NFL Draft?
Michael: I’ll say Vitale here for a couple of reasons. First, the defensive line class is considerably deeper than the fullback/tight end class, so that gives Vitale an advantage. Lots of teams that need defensive linemen may have already selected them by the time it gets to Lowry’s area of the draft. Secondly, Vitale is an unknown commodity after a solid career as a Northwestern super-back. His combine results were impressive, and he’s shown the ability to block, run routes, and catch the ball. CBS Sports rates him as the third-best fullback in the draft, but I could also see a team with some tight end depth considering him as the 6th or 7th tight end off the board
Matt: I’ll go with Lowry before Vitale. The biggest knock on Lowry is that his arms aren’t long enough to be an NFL defensive end, but his footwork and just overall strength to a pretty good job making up for that. I don’t think he has superstar potential or anything, but he should have a valuable career as a depth guy/backup lineman. Teams who value him as such and are really fishing for some D-Line depth could reach as high as the fourth or fifth round for him. As for Vitale, despite his great combine performance I have to question how well his skills will translate to the NFL. Teams won’t value his ability to catch short passes as much as Northwestern did. As a result I think he’ll end up getting picked closer to the 7th round.
Ari: I think Lowry will be selected before Vitale for a number of reasons. First of all, not many teams use a dedicated fullback anymore and even the ones that do aren’t going to be drafting one till late. That’s only going to push Vitale further back in the draft. Second, if not for his short arms, Lowry could be one of the best defensive lineman prospects in the draft. He’s one of just three lineman that stand at 6’6’’ or taller and weigh in at 290 lbs or more. The other two are DeForest Bucker, a Top-10 pick, and Chris Jones, a potential first or second round pick. Third, Vitale never really played in a fullback role at Northwestern so teams might be a bit worried about his blocking skills. I think Lowry goes in the late fifth or early sixth and Vitale goes in the late sixth or early seventh round.
2. The Big Ten is sending a number of players to the draft, many of them from Ohio State. Players like Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott and Jack Conklin should all have their names called as early as Day One, and they’ll certainly be a lot more drafted throughout the weekend. But the question is, who is the best prospect out of the Big Ten?
Michael: While it certainly wasn’t kosher for Zeke Elliott to criticize his team’s play-calling after the Buckeyes’ loss to Michigan State, the bruising running back had a point. He’s a play-maker of the highest caliber, and while his two-game stretch to end the 2015 season was impressive, I consider him a top-10 pick based on the end of his 2014 campaign. Over the Buckeyes’ three post-season games at the end of their championship season, Elliot AVERAGED 232 rushing yards per game. His 220 yards against Wisconsin were more than the Badgers allowed any other TEAM to rush for in 2014. He ran for 230 more against Alabama, a feat no team had accomplished against the Tide since Auburn in the 2013 Iron Bowl. Whichever team lands Elliott will get the best rookie running back the league has seen since Adrian Peterson.
Matt: I have to say Joey Bosa for this one. He’s just a flat out tank on the D-line, and his massive frame couldn’t be more NFL ready. I’m confident that he’s the best defensive lineman on the board, and I’d be shocked if he fell outside the top 7. The closest prospect to his level out of the Big Ten is probably his former teammate Ezekiel Elliott. The running back is everything that teams look for in a running back prospect, but I think the general tendency of teams’ willingness to pass on running backs early will drop him just outside the top 10. Talent-wise, it’s hard to compare these two very different positions, but I’ll say Bosa is the best prospect since he’s more of a sure thing.
Ari: Partially to be a bit of a contrarian here, but also because I absolutely love him as an NFL Draft prospect, Darron Lee, in my opinion, is the best Big Ten player in this year’s draft. This certainly isn’t a knock on either Bosa or Elliott, both are incredible prospects, but I am a huge fan of the former-Buckeye linebacker. Lee is an absolute playmaker, an incredible rangy linebacker who can make plays all over the field. Lee had 11.0 TFL, 4.5 sacks and 2 passes defended last season with the Buckeye, and looked like an absolute stud. He’ll slot right in on someone’s defense and make plays from day one.
3. Every draft there’s always a number of players that everyone whiffs on, whether it be a bust or a sleeper that turns out to be one of the better players in the draft. But since we want to end this 3-on-3 on a happy note, this year who’s your Big Ten or Northwestern sleeper?
Michael: I’m not sure why the League is sleeping on Penn State’s Carl Nassib. He’s a monster defensive end with NFL bloodlines (his older brother Ryan is the Giants’ backup quarterback), and he tallied 15.5 sacks last season, same as Joey Bosa and DeForest Buckner COMBINED. What’s not to like about Nassib? According to one scouting report, he exhibits a “lack of twitch, agility and balance,” but a quick Google search also found a Bosa scouting report which describes the consensus first-rounder as “not the quick-twitch athlete you want to see from a top-tier prospect.” It’s hard for me to bet against Nassib’s incredible senior year production. Twitch or no twitch, I think he’ll make a quick impact as a pass-rushing specialist.
Matt: He might slip a little due to some off-field issues, but I’ll continue my Buckeye hype with Adolphus Washington. The 301 pound defensive tackle was a monster last year, and his size and athleticism make him an ideal inside rusher. His arrest back in December for prostitute solicitation got him suspended for the Fiesta bowl, but I’m more willing to take a risk with off-field issues in later rounds. Washington is projected to go around the fourth round, and he could really make teams regret passing him up if he lives up to his great potential. He’s absolutely worth the risk at that point because he really could be a quality full-time starter plugging the gap up the middle.
Ari: There was a lot of talk about Cardale Jones going into the season after he led to Buckeyes to the National Championship, but after a bit of a rough season, all that talk has quieted down. There’s definitely some character concerns, but there’s got to be a place in the NFL for someone who can sling it 80 yards downfield. Jones is going to need time to develop and learn the NFL game, but if he’s given that time, he certainly could develop into a solid or better quarterback capable of raining bombs on opposing secondaries.