If NFL teams are looking for linemen, they may look to the Big Ten often when the draft kicks off with the first round at 8 p.m. ET Thursday. The Big Ten’s top prospects with the best chance to hear their names called on Thursday are linemen: Iowa offensive tackle Riley Reiff; Wisconsin center Peter Konz; Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler; Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy; Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus.
“It’s a good collection of players,” said NFL Network analyst Charles Davis.
In fact, most analyst feel Reiff—who is coming out early–will be the first Big Ten player pick, possibly going in the Top 10 on Thursday.
“I think Reiff will be the first off the board (from the Big Ten) because he plays the high-demand left tackle spot,” said Davis. “And he’s good.”
Iowa has developed a reputation for producing offensive linemen under Kirk Ferentz, having 11 drafted since he took over the program in 1999. Tackle Robert Gallery was the second pick in the 2004 draft (Raiders), while tackle Bryan Bulaga was the 23rd pick in 2010 (Packers). Reiff could be the next.
“If you like Reiff, you believe he can be a left tackle,” said NFL Network analyst Mike Lombardi. “If you aren’t in love with him, you think he’s just a right tackle. If you draft him that high, you are drafting him to be a left tackle. You don’t want to draft a right tackle in the first round. But I don’t see Reiff going in the top 10. Everyone thinks he’s going to Buffalo at 10, but I don’t see it.”
Mercilus, who like Reiff came out early, also looks like a lock to be picked on Thursday. He seemingly emerged from nowhere last season, leading the nation in sacks (1.2 pg). He also paced the Big Ten and ranked second nationally in tackles for loss (1.7 pg) while also leading the conference in forced fumbles (.69).
“He’s hot now,” said Lombardi. “He’s the type of outside guy who can rush that everyone is looking for. The one year of production is always a bit of a concern. But he did it, and he did it vs. some really good people. I think he’ll definitely go in the first round.”
But Mercilus may have to switch to outside linebacker in a 3-4, depending on which team selects him.
Worthy, a big body inside who helped Michigan State pace the Big Ten in total defense and rush defense in 2011, looks like he’ll be selected in the first round after declaring early for the draft.
“I think he’ll go in the 20s,” says Davis. “If he lasts until Denver picks (No. 25), it seems like a fit. He’s what they are looking for. He probably will be the highest rated D-tackle left.”
The final two players with a good shot to go in the first round are Konz—and early draft entrant–and Zeitler. The duo helped the Badgers lead the Big Ten and rank 11th nationally in rushing en route to a second straight Big Ten title with Montee Ball rushing for a national-best 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns.
“(Konz) is a late first-round, second-round guy,” said Davis. “There is a market for him. He’s 6-5 and they think he can get stronger. He benched 225 18 times at the Combine. He did 23 at his pro day. He could be one of the Bengals’ two picks (17 and 21). I definitely can see him at Baltimore at 29. He seems like a perfect Baltimore selection.”
Lombardi loves Zeitler.
“I think Kevin Zeitler may be the best prospect from the Big Ten,” said Lombardi. “He’s really good. Reiff is good. Some think Peter Konz is the best player on Wisconsin, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Zeitler is really a good player. When people in the league watch tape, he’s the guy they are talking about.”
The other Big Ten players likely will have to wait until Friday (second and third rounds) or Saturday (fourth-seventh rounds) to be picked. One of those is Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still. In earlier mock drafts, Still was rated as a possible first-round draft choice. But Still’s stock has dropped.
“I haven’t talked to anyone who has him in the first round,” said Davis. “He started this process as one of the top-rated tackles, and I’m getting second-round grades from everyone I talk to about him now. Can’t find him now in the first round. He had a foot issue and couldn’t go to the Senior Bowl. Then everyone dug in on tape and evaluating, that’s when you start seeing fluctuations on guys.”
But Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins’ draft status is on the rise as the draft approaches.
“Yes, Cousins is moving up,” said Davis. “He started out as a third-round pick on most people’s boards. But I wouldn’t be shocked to see him go in the second round.”
Davis and Lombardi both agree that Ohio State offensive tackle Mike Adams has first-round talent. But recent news that he tested positive for marijuana at the Combine no doubt will impact his draft status. Adams also was suspended for two games in 2009 for violating team rules and was one of five players suspended for the first five games last year for receiving benefits from selling collectibles through a tattoo parlor. Still, despite all of that, Adams could sneak into the first round because of his talent and the fact there aren’t a lot of primo left tackle prospects in the draft.
“You know you are going to the Combine and you test positive?” said Davis. “He knows he’s gonna be tested. Really? He may drop out of the first round for that reason. He’s a smart kid by all accounts, too. A smart guy doing knuckleheaded things, they could hold that against you more than if you are just a dingbat. If he is smart enough to know better and still does it … “
Nonetheless, it will be an interesting draft for a Big Ten conference that is loaded with some top talent in the trenches and could have as many as six players selected on Thursday.
BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is on Twitter and Facebook, and all of his work is at btn.com/tomdienhart. Send questions to his weekly mailbag, subscribe to his RSS feed, and check out his video Q&A.