Several Illini Heading to NFL

Four former Illinois football players were drafted by NFL teams this weekend. A couple others have signed free-agent deals with teams, with more likely to come in the near future.

Illinois, despite a disappointing season, remained strong yet again on draft weekend with four players being drafted. After the draft, a few others have started to sign with NFL teams as free agents. We take a look at where they ended up and how they fit in with their new teams.

Hugh Thornton - OG (Indianapolis Colts):

Thornton, one of the more athletic linemen at Illinois, played all four years during his college career. He spent a majority of his college career blocking for dual-threat quarterbacks, but now he heads to Indianapolis where he will be tasked with blocking one of the proverbial future stars of the NFL in Andrew Luck.

Thornton played all across the offensive line in college with the exception of center. He even lined up at fullback occasionally, a testament to his athleticism. However, with Anthony Castonzo at left tackle already, Thornton would project more readily as a left guard in the NFL. He will likely contend for playing time early in his career with only unrestricted free agent Donald Thomas ahead of him at LG.

Thornton has been dinged up from time to time at Illinois, but with advanced training, strength & conditioning programs in the NFL, Thornton could develop first into a solid backup and eventually be ready once his time comes to take the field.

Akeem Spence - DT (Tampa Bay Buccaneers):

Spence, who was a redshirt junior when he decided to forego his senior year to pursue an NFL career, also played early in his Illinois career. He lined up next to San Diego Chargers DT Corey Liuget his freshman year and next to Houston Texans DE/LB Whitney Mercilus his sophomore year, so he's been surrounded by NFL talent.

Spence was likely the strongest player at Illinois. He played a little heavier his junior year, but by the time of the combine, he trimmed to right around 300 pounds without losing any strength. His build and strength alone should enable him to be able to see the field early because he won't have to spend as much time getting his body to an NFL level.

He thought he may end up in Oakland, but the Buccaneers traded up to get Spence, allowing him to head back to his home state to begin his pro career, surrounded by family and friends. Not only is the location great for Spence, he also has the opportunity to see the field early with only Gerald McCoy ahead of him on the depth charts.

Spence will likely need some time to carve his niche with the Bucs. McCoy will be more difficult to beat out than some other defensive tackles, but as physical as the NFL is, he'll likely rotate in on the line in certain situations and be able to spell McCoy. Spence has always been a run-stopper, and he commanded double teams regularly in college. He'll likely see more one-on-ones in the pros, but he's motivated to be successful, and that's half the battle.

Terry Hawthorne - CB (Pittsburgh Steelers):

Culture-wise, Hawthorne fits in perfectly in the secondary of the Pittsburgh Steelers. A scrappy, athletic, and hard-hitting corner, Hawthorne struggled with injuries in his career at Illinois. But one thing was always very clear: Hawthorne is an exceptional athlete.

Throw on Hawthorne's high school highlight tapes, and you'll see that from an early age, he was going to be a player. As a true freshman at Illinois, he made the play that won everyone over, as he made up 10 yards difference on Roy Roundtree of Michigan, saving a touchdown, and essentially turning the tide on that game. Hawthorne has that big play ability, but he'll also go through stretches where he can struggle from time to time.

Still, he's a tall, fast, and physical guy who, in a lot of ways, is like Ike Taylor. Hawthorne will likely be a little further down the depth chart to begin his career, but as frequent as injuries have been in the Pittsburgh secondary over the years, Hawthorne could find himself getting at least some playing time in his rookie season. If he can stay healthy, adapt to Dick LeBeau's system in Pittsburgh (shouldn't be a problem, he's had numerous defensive coaches in his time at Illinois) and show that he's worth the pick, Hawthorne should be able to stick in the Steel City.

Michael Buchanan - DE (New England Patriots):

Buchanan had a very productive junior season at Illinois as the other bookend to 2012 first round draft pick Whitney Mercilus. On the fence about coming back for a while, Buchanan elected to stay at Illinois for one more year. After suffering a broken jaw in the offseason and subsequently getting behind on his nutrition, Buchanan was asked to be the guy on the defensive line for Illinois. However, unlike last year, teams were able to double team him and neutralize him much more than the year prior.

Still, the Homewood-Flossmoor product has the size and athleticism that NFL scouts love. At 6'6" tall and 250 pounds, Buchanan has the flexibility to be both a linebacker or defensive end in the league. The Patriots run a 3-4 scheme, meaning Buchanan could have the flexibility to be a stand-up pass rusher.

However, for Buchanan, it will be tough to crack the rotation in New England on the defensive side. He's buried on the depth chart behind several defensive ends as soon as he arrives, so he may be limited to special teams at first until he further develops his body and strength, but because of his natural athletic ability, he could become a really good special teams player.

Undrafted Free Agents:

Graham Pocic - OL (Houston Texans):

Pocic, like Thornton, played all over the offensive line throughout his time at Illinois. Despite being 6'7" tall, Pocic was converted into a Center early in his career, but he played both guard and tackle at times. Pocic likely played center out of necessity, but it likely took away from his ability to play more natural positions and develop for the NFL.

Houston isn't exactly loaded with premier tackles, but there is a lot of depth at the position. However, the guard position is a bit more open, and given Pocic's build and skill set, he would likely find better opportunity at guard. Pocic would probably be best suited at the right guard position. If he can stick with the program, he'll have plenty of opportunity to block for a skilled running back corps. Otherwise he may be looking at some time on a practice squad for the time being, which isn't all bad because it would allow him to adjust to the pro game.

Justin Staples - LB (Cleveland Browns):

Staples, who spent time at both defensive end and linebacker at Illinois, likely projects as an outside linebacker in the NFL. Staples, who spent some time in the coach's doghouse for minor incidents, came a long way through his college career to make it to the NFL.

Staples, originally from Lakewood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, has the fortune of signing close to home, which will be good to give him the support he needs as he takes on the challenge of the NFL. The depth chart at outside linebacker in Cleveland's 3-4 scheme is pretty stacked, especially with the addition of LSU DE/LB Barkevious Mingo, so Staples may be limited to special teams or possibly the practice squad for now, but half the battle is making it to the league in the first place, and once the door is open, the rest is up to the player.

Glenn Foster - DE/DT (New Orleans Saints):

Foster switched between defensive end and defensive tackle as needed throughout his career at Illinois. He had an uncanny ability to both put on and shed weight to meet the needs of his position, but now at 6'4" and about 285 pounds, he enters the league as a bit of a tweener of shorts. Foster turned a lot of heads at the Illinois pro day, putting up some incredible numbers for a guy his size, but it wasn't enough to get him drafted in the end.

Still, he was able to land with a team that has another former Illini on the defensive line in Martez Wilson. Wilson, who played linebacker at Illinois, grew into a defensive end, and last year racked up several forced fumbles and stepped up well when other guys went down with injuries. Foster, while not the athlete that Wilson is, still brings a different dimension to the defensive line. The Saints drafted big John Jenkins from Georgia, a massive nose tackle in the 3-4 scheme. Foster would likely project as a defensive end in the Big Easy.

The player I would compare him to is Henry Melton of the Chicago Bears. An athletic guy who's a hybrid DT/DE. Like Melton, I expect Foster to take some time to develop, but the time spent adjusting to the league and waiting for some playing time to open up might be just what Foster needs to carve his spot in New Orleans.

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