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COLUMBUS — If ever there stood a convenient symbol for the Big Ten’s fading national stature on Saturdays, it was its inability last year to produce players for Sunday.
The Big Ten had its worst NFL draft in decades — maybe ever.
The league’s flagship four of Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska, and Penn State combined to produce just two picks in the first three rounds while the Big Ten nearly went 0-for-the-first-round for the first time since 1953. Not until the Dallas Cowboys selected Wisconsin center Travis Frederick with the 31st overall pick could the league office exhale.
In all, the Big Ten’s 22 draft picks marked its lowest output since 1994, when a smaller league (11 teams) had 21 selections in a smaller draft (29 teams).
This year, though, the decline has not only stalled but reversed. The Big Ten is due for a comeback, with Ohio State out front.
As the draft twists from Thursday through Saturday, the Buckeyes should enjoy their best showing in at least five years.
Linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby are among six Big Ten players projected as possible first-round picks, running back Carlos Hyde is widely seen as the top prospect at his position, and left tackle and St. John’s Jesuit graduate Jack Mewhort is a near-certain Day 2 selection. Center Corey Linsley and receiver Corey Brown are pegged as mid to late-round picks, which would give OSU at least six draftees for the first time since 2009.
Analysts see Shazier as one of the Big Ten’s safest first-round bets, along with Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan and Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. (Roby, Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, and Indiana wide receiver Cody Latimer round out the league’s invitees to the NFL draft in New York City.)
NFL Network’s Mike Mayock called the 6-foot-1, 237-pound Shazier a prototype weakside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. A burner who had 134 tackles and six sacks last year, he is projected anywhere from 20th overall to late in the first round.
Roby’s stock is a tougher read. Teams must weigh his immense potential against the red flags, including recent legal trouble. Roby pleaded guilty last week to a reduced charge of physical control of a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol after police found him asleep in his car.
Will it cost him a place in the first round? Mock drafters are mixed.
"He's the most athletic cornerback in the draft," ESPN analyst Todd McShay said. "He can be as good as he wants to be at the next level. I think he could have been coached better. I think his eye discipline was terrible. I think he lacks personal discipline. ... The team that drafts him better have a good position coach and better have some veteran leaders around him."
Hyde and Mewhort, meanwhile, are strong candidates for the second day.
That Hyde was not invited to the draft is a reflection of the times. The former All-American is billed as the top running back in the class, a ready-to-start bruiser who does not fumble and is strong in pass protection. And yet he is widely projected as a second or third-round pick — a paradox created by a changing NFL. As running backs are increasingly seen as dime-a-dozen talents with limited lifespans in a pass-happy league, franchises are prioritizing elsewhere. A running back is unlikely to be picked in the first round for the second straight year.
Mewhort is among the top prospects at a position that is far more valued but also deeper. He remains a hot early-round choice, with analysts emphasizing the value of his ability to play all five line positions. ESPN’s Mel Kiper, Jr., tabbed Mewhort to be drafted 66th overall by the Washington Redskins. Mayock lists Mewhort as the No. 59 overall prospect.