As Northwestern’s sideline reporter for WGN Radio, I get the chance to see many top NFL Draft prospects up close each season. Part of my pregame routine includes identifying which NFL scouts and executives are in the building and which players they are watching close.
So as we debut this new weekly draft notebook on Pro Football Weekly, the Big Ten seemed like a good place to start. Here are some Big Ten studs you may know about, and a couple you might not (and I’m skipping Saquon Barkley because we know how good he is — he’s my No. 1 overall prospect).
Iowa CB Josh Jackson
Jackson isn’t exactly flying under the radar — he’s widely considered a first-round pick — but I think the Iowa cornerback is actually worthy of a top-10 pick. He’s tall with great length for the position and flashed incredible ball-hawking instincts in 2017 with eight interceptions and 27 pass breakups. He literally provided all of Iowa’s offense against Wisconsin with two pick-sixes. He’ll have to shake the “one-year wonder” label, but that can easily be explained by the fact that the came to Iowa City as a receiver and was behind a talented group of corners when he made the position switch. And that’s the thing — he looks like a wideout playing cornerback. Ball-hawking defensive backs like this don’t come along too often, and Jackson should be a turnover-machine in the NFL.
Maryland WR D.J. Moore
Moore put up 12 catches for 210 yards and two touchdowns when I saw him in person this season, so it’s not surprising that he’s on this list. Perhaps I witnessed the best performance of his career, but I kept close tabs on him the rest of the season and was impressed with how he performed despite a turnstile of quarterbacks in College Park. Moore is likely a slot guy, but his route-running is polished and he has Steve Smith-like toughness in his game. In my mind, he’s an early-to-mid second-round pick.
Wisconsin TE Troy Fumagalli
By now you’ve probably heard about UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin trying to live out his NFL dream with only one hand, but did you know that Fumagalli only has nine fingers? His left index finger had to be amputated shortly after birth, but amazingly, it has had almost no impact on his football career. In fact, I wasn’t even aware of Fumagalli’s missing finger until the final game of his junior season, and that’s because he was one of the most sure-handed tight ends in college football. Given the importance of the index finger when it comes to catching footballs, it will likely have an impact on where/when he gets drafted, but Fumagalli has the size (6-5, 247)and receiving ability to be a starting tight end in the NFL.
Penn State TE Mike Gesicki
I thought Gesicki could have come out a year ago — and maybe he should have, as his stock seems to have cooled this year. While the Penn State tight end needs to greatly improve his blocking, he’s still an extremely athletic tight end with a massive catch radius (82 3/8" wingspan). He never drops passes and should be a big-time target in the red zone (nine touchdowns in 2017). I’d like to see Gesicki be more physical against jams at the line of scrimmage and improve his blocking, but I’m still high on him as a high-ceiling receiving tight end at the next level.
Northwestern RB Justin Jackson
How does the 10th leading rusher in NCAA history not receive an invite to the Senior Bowl? I still haven’t heard a reasonable explanation for that one. Still, that gives you an indication that Jackson is flying under the radar in the NFL world, and it probably didn’t help that he was playing through a knee injury against Penn State — Northwestern’s highest-attended game for NFL scouts. Perhaps a little undersized (5-11, 199), Jackson is an elusive, physical runner who bounces off of contact and always finishes forward. He never played behind a dominant offensive line in college, yet Jackson still finished third all-time in the Big Ten with 5440 rushing yards, trailing only Ron Dayne and Archie Griffin.
Way We Hear It
USC quarterback Sam Darnold made the rounds during Super Bowl week in Minneapolis, but he didn’t stop working. Darnold used the Minnesota Gophers’ brand new facility to train — the same place the Philadelphia Eagles were practicing.
Northwestern nose tackle Tyler Lancaster did not receive a Combine invite, but a few teams are interested in working him out as an interior offensive lineman. Lancaster played center in high school.
Wisconsin linebacker Jack Cichy did not announce his intention to enter the NFL Draft until December, but he’s been working toward the NFL Combine since suffering a torn ACL in August. The word is he’s on track to do some, if not all, of the activities in Indianapolis and he could be a fast riser if he proves he’s healthy.