News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft: The top draft prospect on every team in the Big Ten

As someone who was born in Wisconsin, grew up in Illinois, went to college in Indiana and now lives in Ohio, I know how much Big Ten football means to the region.

Saturdays this fall just haven’t quite been the same without that vaunted noon kickoff from Camp Randall or Spartan Stadium, but that changes this weekend. Illinois at Wisconsin kicks it off Friday night; then we have a full slate of conference games Saturday to take us home. With that in mind, let’s look at the top 2021 NFL Draft prospect from every school in the Big Ten.

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Indiana – TE Peyton Hendershot

Talent-wise, Hendershot is easily a top-10 tight end in the draft class. Last season, he hauled in 52 passes for 620 yards and broke 11 tackles for the Hoosiers. He runs hard after the catch, and Indiana was content to even throw him screens in the flat! We’ve seen little from him as a run-blocker, but his receiving ability is draftable.

He’ll have to answer for some off-field issues, including a dropped charge for domestic battery after an incident last winter. He eventually pled guilty to trespassing, missed all of spring practice and has been back with the team this fall.

Iowa — C Tyler Linderbuam

Linderbaum is, for my money, the most athletic center in the country. Watching him play on the move is a thing of beauty. Even more beautiful is the fact that last year was his first at the position after spending his first year on campus at defensive tackle. He only allowed nine pressures all season long and earned an 81.7 overall grade. Having bulked up from 270 pounds last year to 289 this season, I’m excited to see what he does for an encore.

Oh, and here he is pinning Tristan Wirfs back in their high school wrestling days:

Illinois — T Alex Palczewski

Illinois doesn’t have any slam-dunk-type prospects, but the fact that they have any at all is a massive win for a team that’s had only one player drafted — a seventh-rounder — in the past three drafts. Palczewski is entering his fourth season as a starter and third at right tackle (he played both guard spots as a freshman). Guard, however, is likely where Palczewski ends up in the NFL.

He’s still slightly built for a tackle at 6-foot-6, 310 pounds, and can get forklifted at times. His down-to-down consistency and refined hand usage are worth taking a shot on late in the draft, though.

Maryland — LB Chance Campbell

Of all teams in the Big Ten this season, Maryland may be the biggest longshot to get a player drafted. Even their top prospect here — while a productive college player — likely projects to little more than a special teamer in the NFL. Campbell earned a 76.0 overall grade in his first year as a starter in 2019, but he is undersized and limited athletically.

Michigan — EDGE Aidan Hutchinson

This one is a toss-up at this point, as Hutchinson is easily the more polished player, but senior defensive end Kwity Paye is far and away the more projectable NFL athlete.

Hutchinson is no slouch himself in terms of tools, though, and what he did as a true sophomore last year in the Big Ten was impressive. He racked up 46 pressures on the year as well as 28 stops in the run game. His seven-pressure performance against Iowa had the most quality reps against Tristan Wirfs that any tackle had last season. He’s a big boy, at 6-foot-6, 269 pounds, and can easily play 3-4 or 4-3 defensive end in the NFL. That versatility is a key reason why he checks in at 37th on PFF’s latest draft board.

Michigan State — EDGE Jacub Panasiuk

Panasiuk had himself a breakout junior campaign in 2019 for the Spartans. He went from only 12 pressures on 233 pass-rushing snaps in 2018 to 38 on 319 last year for a 90.0 pass-rushing grade. His 18 quarterback hits were tied for the second-most in the country. After declaring his intention to opt-out this fall, Panasiuk has reversed course and will be part of the Spartans defense once again.

Panasiuk still needs to get stronger if he wants to be considered anything other than a late-round flyer. He’s not the type of explosive athlete the NFL covets highly, and that’s concerning given that he's already on the small side at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds. While he uses his hands exceptionally well — and that’s a nice starting point — without a power aspect to his game, it’s going to be difficult to win in the league.

Minnesota — WR Rashod Bateman

Yet another initial opt-out who’s opted back in. Bateman’s sophomore tape was good enough that his opt-out status truthfully didn’t worry me too much in relation to his draft stock. He beat one-on-one coverage from the outside with such ease that he led the nation in yards per route from a split wide alignment.

His release package and route-running are so refined for a receiver his age that you feel really good about how he’ll translate to the NFL. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, there’s no size question marks either. The only “knock” is a lack of elite athleticism. He’s still no slouch in that regard and routinely stacked and separated down the field. This is one of the cleanest receiver prospects in the country.

Nebraska — T Brenden Jaimes

Jaimes was quietly one of the best pass-protecting left tackles in the country last season. He allowed only nine pressures for an 88.1 pass-blocking grade on 402 pass-blocking snaps.

That represented a massive leap forward from his first two seasons as a starter when he allowed 24 pressures in 2017 and 19 in 2018. While the numbers are great, the physical tools projecting to the NFL don’t quite match. His foot quickness is below average for the position, and his lack of flexibility shows in his run blocking, where he only earned a 63.0 grade last season.

Northwestern — EDGE Earnest Brown IV

Unfortunately, left tackle and possible first-rounder Rashawn Slater won’t be opting back in for the Wildcats this fall. He would easily take the cake as Northwestern’s top prospect, but they’re not completely bereft of draftable talent like in some years past.

While uber-productive linebacker Paddy Fisher has a shot of getting drafted, I’ll take the long, versatile senior defensive end Earnest Brown IV as the best prospect on Northwestern. He had some “wow” reps last year before injuries limited him to only 137 snaps on the year. Still, he earned an 86.6 overall grade on those snaps while seamlessly moving inside and out on the Wildcats' defensive line. I’m excited to see what he can do in a bigger role when healthy this season.

Ohio State — QB Justin Fields

Fields stands out above the rest on a loaded Ohio State roster that currently features a ridiculous seven players in PFF’s top-100 rankings. He doesn’t have to do much more to be a top-five pick, but I’m guessing we’ll see him build on his breakout 2019 campaign this fall. His 92.4 passing grade trailed only Joe Burrow last season, and that doesn’t even take into account his 4.5 speed at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds.

One of the most difficult things about Fields' evaluation is how easy the Ohio State offense makes it look. He has receivers running wide open down the field in a way no one outside of maybe Alabama can come close to. I’m not questioning the tools, though, as he’s more than deserving of the QB2 spot in PFF’s rankings.

Penn State — TE Pat Freiermuth

This one would have been linebacker Micah Parsons with ease were he still on Penn State’s roster. Freiermuth is a pretty special prospect in his own right, however. He’s the most complete inline tight end prospect in the class and is right up there as a prospect with former top-10 pick T.J. Hockenson in that regard. He straight bodies defenders after the catch at 6-foot-5, 258 pounds.

The “Baby Gronk” tag isn’t unwarranted. Expect to hear his name called in the first round next April.

Purdue — WR Rondale Moore

He’s not only the best prospect on Purdue this year, but the best prospect they’ve had in a decade — quite literally. Ryan Kerrigan (2011) was the Boilermakers' last first-round pick, and Moore should end up there in 2021.

After initially opting out of the 2020 season — and breaking the heart of yours truly — Moore decided to opt back in for the fall. That’s a smart decision for his draft stock, given that he only played 227 snaps in 2019 before a hamstring injury ended his year. Moore’s freshman year is still the most impressive debut season we’ve seen from a receiver in the PFF College era. He hauled in 114 passes for 1,258 yards and led the nation with 37 broken tackles. Moore has done most of his damage from the slot, but I believe he has the juice to beat coverage from the outside, as well. Hopefully, we get a chance to see him in that role this season.

Rutgers — LB Olakunle Fatukasi

The younger brother of Jets defensive tackle Folorunso Fatukasi, Olakunle looks like one of the very few on Rutgers who could have an NFL future. He has the sort of sideline-to-sideline athleticism that’s required from a linebacker in the league nowadays. After looking more like a safety last season listed in the 220s, he’s bulked up to 234 pounds this year, which should help his stock.

While he’s not gotten much love and will fly under a lot of radars playing at Rutgers, Fatukasi has a shot at sneaking his way into the Day 2 mix. He only allowed 12 catches from 18 targets in coverage for 90 yards last season. That’s not easy to do with not a lot of help around him.

Wisconsin — LB Jack Sanborn

Wisconsin has quietly been a linebacker university of late — in the past five drafts, they’ve had seven linebackers get drafted. Sanborn looks like he’s next in line.

Sanborn racked up 44 stops and 23 pressures in his first year as a starter in 2019. His 83.8 coverage grade was one of the best in the country, as he picked off three passes and broke up three more.

Only a true junior, Sanborn looks like a long shot to declare at this point. He needs to get considerably stronger and clean up his missed tackle problem that saw him whiff on 24 of 100 attempts last season. That being said, his playmaking and instincts look bound for the NFL.

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