NFL draft matchups: Return of Big Ten adds major talent influx back to college football

Eric Edholm
·10-min read

The Big Ten, dear friends, is back.

And to honor this red-letter weekend, we’re devoting all of our prospect matchups to a conference that has an outsized collection of NFL talent this season.

Not that the conference hasn’t had its share of big-time talent in recent years — it has produced 10 top-10 selections since the 2015 NFL draft. But this year’s crop is perhaps deeper and richer than in recent seasons, and it will be fun to see how this group starts stacking against the field now that they’re back in action.

Ohio State QB Justin Fields faces Nebraska on Saturday, and he clearly is the sexiest Big Ten prospect this season. Fields has a chance to land in the top 10 overall next spring if he continues his 2019 magic, and he fits the mold of the dual-threat QB that’s sweeping the NFL these days.

The opening week’s slate might lack a little pizzazz, but there’s plenty to watch from a draft-prospect standpoint.

Michigan edge rushers vs. Minnesota OT Daniel Faalele

When we were scouting Alabama OT Jedrick Wills Jr. last winter, it took us four game tapes to get to a defensive player who actually found a way to make the eventual first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns look a little shaky.

That player was Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson. HIs first-half performance in the Citrus Bowl has been burned into our brains ever since, from Hutchinson blowing past Wills for a sack or later chasing down WR Jerry Jeudy from behind on a screen pass.

Hutchinson and Kwity Paye form perhaps the best 1-2 punch of edge rushers in the country. You could just see Hutchinson’s development improve, seemingly on a weekly basis last season, and he figures to be one of the fastest-rising prospects in the conference this year.

Both he and Paye could end up first-rounders when it’s all said and done. Both could use continued pass-rush development, and there might be debates about the best ways to employ each of them, technique-wish, on the next level. But in terms of athletic skill, burst and competitiveness, both Paye and Hutchinson are exceptional specimens.

Minnesota offensive lineman Daniel Faalele (78) is one of the largest players in college football history. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Minnesota offensive lineman Daniel Faalele (78) is one of the largest players in college football history. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Standing in their way is the 6-foot-9, 400-pound — not a misprint — Faalele. There simply hasn’t been an NFL OT prospect quite like him, and that’s saying something in light of the (comparably small) 6-7, 364-pound Mekhi Becton having just been drafted 11th overall this spring. Faalele is one of the largest humans to play college football, and NFL scouts are watching.

Feelele isn’t a Becton-caliber athlete. Pass protection has been an issue at times, but the more football he’s played — Faalele only learned the game in 2017, having come from Australia as a rugby and basketball player — the more comfortable he’s looked. (He’s got one more year of eligibility remaining after this season but could declare early with a strong year.)

But it’s nearly impossible to bull rush Faalele, and it’s a $5 Uber ride just to get around him. Can the quicker Hutchinson and Paye give him fits with their first steps? Both Wolverines flip sides and play multiple techniques; they even line up alongside one another in passing situations, with Hutchinson kicking inside, and can be menaces on stunt and twist games.

If you’re at all fascinated by OL-DL line play, this is an A-plus matchup we can’t recommend enough.

Minnesota WR Rashod Bateman vs. Michigan secondary

We’re double dipping on the prime-time matchup on Saturday night because we are really interested to see if Bateman can match his sophomore-season brilliance as he figures to launch into the NFL draft pool in the spring.

Bateman had an interesting few months this offseason, first opting out for COVID-19 reasons before returning this season for the Gophers. But when he takes the field Saturday against a good Wolverines secondary, he’ll have the chance to prove he belongs among the elite prospects in next year’s draft class.

Does Bateman have game-changing speed? We don’t believe so. But at 6-2 and 210 pounds, he’s very well-built and he maxes out his play speed with subtle route-running skill, explosive bursts and good yards-after-catch skill. WR coach Matt Simon has tutored Bateman very well, just as Simon did 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers fifth-rounder Tyler Johnson.

Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman could find success against a rebuilt Michigan secondary. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman could find success against a rebuilt Michigan secondary. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Even though the Wolverines perennially have fielded strong defenses, Michigan’s secondary looms as a potential area of concern.

S Brad Hawkins is the leader of a Michigan secondary, a tough leader who played through pain last season and turned in some nice performances. The 6-foot, 218-pound Hawkins lined up at both safety spots, in the box as a run defender and as a slot corner. His summer grades tended to range from the sixth round to an undrafted free-agent level, but another strong season could ensure he’s picked in 2021.

CB Ambry Thomas, who overcame a bout of colitis last season, has opted out for the season. DJ Turner, Jalen Perry, Gemon Green and Vincent Gray are among the semi-unknowns slated to help patch the CB cupboard. It’s hard to know exactly what caliber of corners Bateman and the Gophers will be facing there, and he looks primed for a big game.

Penn State TE Pat Freiermuth vs. Indiana

With Florida’s Kyle Pitts well on his way to establishing himself as TE1 in next year’s class, Freiermuth has a little makeup work to do ahead of the season opener. But “Baby Gronk,” as he’s sometimes called, profiles as a possible top-50 selection — even as a possible first-rounder. Penn State doesn’t have a lot of established receivers returning, so he could be featured even more this season.

The Hoosiers actually held Freiermuth in check last year, with two catches for 32 yards on three targets (plus a fumble that he recovered). They employed, by my count, at least six defenders to cover him for at least one snap each in the game — mostly linebackers and safeties, or their “Husky” position, which is a hybrid of the two.

STATE COLLEGE, PA - NOVEMBER 30: Pat Freiermuth #87 of the Penn State Nittany Lions in action against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights during the second half at Beaver Stadium on November 30, 2019 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
STATE COLLEGE, PA - NOVEMBER 30: Pat Freiermuth #87 of the Penn State Nittany Lions in action against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights during the second half at Beaver Stadium on November 30, 2019 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Freiermuth was used mostly as a run and pass blocker in that game, and he did an excellent job at both, picking up a few early blitzes and opening holes for RB Journey Brown in the run game. Freiermuth also drew a pass-interference call on Hoosiers S Devon Matthews, so his impact in PSU’s victory went beyond the box score.

But we believe this game will offer more receiving options for Freiermuth. Marcelino Ball, Indiana’s best 2021 prospect on defense, is out for the season, which could leave S Bryant Fitzgerald singled up on Freiermuth, who would have a huge size advantage against him.

Plus, with Brown possibly out for the season with a health concern and Indiana’s ability top put up points in a hurry, we expect the Nittany Lions to throw the ball quite a bit.

Purdue WR Rondale Moore vs. Iowa

(Editor’s note: Moore was ruled out for this game for unknown reasons Friday morning but is reportedly expected to play next week.)

We were pleased that Moore — like Bateman — was able to return to school after previously opting out and starting his 2021 draft prep. Both receivers have NFL-caliber talent, but Moore’s lack of playing time (185 offensive snaps since the end of the 2018 season) figured to work against him had he not rejoined the Boilermakers.

Now it’s a chance for the 5-9, 185-pound Moore to remind the country of just how electric a playmaker he is, assuming he’s fully recovered from a season-ending knee injury that cut his 2019 way short. We watched him absolutely clown an overmatched Vanderbilt secondary (13 catches on 18 targets, 222 yards, touchdown) in person last season, a game that was fairly well attended by NFL scouts.

Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore has a great chance to build his resumé this season after missing time with a knee injury in 2019. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore has a great chance to build his resumé this season after missing time with a knee injury in 2019. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

To this point, Moore mostly has been used as a quick-strike option whose job has been to break tackles and zig-zag through defenses. (And he’s exceptional at that, running screens with the exceptional vision one would expect from a gifted punt and kick returner also.)

But NFL scouts want to see a more diverse body of work from Moore. Last season, 23 of his 29 receptions were caught within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. In 2018, 98 of his FCS-best 114 grabs were from 10 yards and in.

Iowa’s secondary must replace Denver Broncos third-rounder Michael Ojemudia and Baltimore Ravens seventh-rounder Geno Stone. But they return senior CB Matt Hankins, junior S Jack Koerner and sophomore nickel Dane Belton in what could be a solid group by the Hawkeyes’ high recent DB standard.

Ohio State’s LB trio vs. Nebraska

Despite losing third-rounder Malik Harrison, the Buckeyes are loaded at linebacker. Led by Pete Werner, Baron Browning and Tuf Borland — three players who should end up on NFL rosters — OSU has depth, talent and versatility.

But interestingly, only Werner (590 snaps last season) was truly a three-down defender a year ago. This season, the 6-3, 242-pound Werner is moving from “Sam” to “Will” linebacker and should be in line to make more plays. He’s already well-regarded in NFL circles, earning some second-round grades this summer, and could crack the top 50 selections next spring.

Even so, he’s not the Buckeyes linebacker with the highest ceiling. Despite playing only 40.5 percent of the defensive snaps a year ago, Browning has the kind of athletic potential that could make him the star of this unit.

Ohio State Buckeyes linebacker Baron Browning could be readymade for his breakout season. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Ohio State Buckeyes linebacker Baron Browning could be readymade for his breakout season. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Able to blitz, cover and fill against the run, Browning — who reportedly is playing in the 240-pound range now — might fully be unleashed this season at Werner’s former “Sam” spot. Even coming off a tough performance in the semifinals loss to Clemson, Browning figures to be an exciting prospect to track this season. He might even be a dark-horse first-round candidate, able to rise in the way that, say, LSU’s Patrick Queen did a year ago.

Borland, who earned Day 3 grades this summer, is likely to win over an NFL team with his hustle and instincts and perhaps carve out a role as a reserve linebacker and special teamer.

Those three will be tasked with stopping the Huskers’ offense, which is under the direction of new coordinator Matt Lubick, who last was seen coaching at Washington. Lubick will have his hands full trying to move the ball against the Buckeyes, who didn’t allow Nebraska a completion longer than 10 yards in the blowout loss a year ago.

Dual-threat QB Adrian Martinez won the starting job again but appears to have a tenuous hold on it; redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey (younger brother of Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey) could steal snaps from him in this game. The Buckeyes completely shut down Martinez a year ago.

The player whom OSU’s linebackers might be tested by most is RB Wan’Dale Robinson, a talented run-pass threat who could be on the verge of a breakout season.

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