There was a lot of NFL talent on the field in the College Football Playoff Championship Game. According to BleacherReport.com's Matt MIller (my favorite NFL Draft expert), 11 of the 2016 NFL Draft's top-80 prospects were on display (seven for Alabama and four for Clemson). And that only includes the draft-eligible prospects. Clemson sophomore QB DeShaun Watson and Alabama sophomore OT Cam Robinson are both projected top-10 picks in 2017. Illinois had no NFL Draft Prospects on the field in 2013 and 2014 (no NFL Draft picks in 2014 or 2015). It may have had a few on the field in 2015. Miller ranks DL Jihad Ward 119th on his top-300 prospects and RB Josh Ferguson at No. 280.
Jihad Ward should be drafted in the first three or four rounds. Some feedback I've received is that he may even go in the top-60. Ward can play in any scheme but fits best as a 3-4 defensive end. He has NFL size (6-foot-6, 295 pounds) and enough athleticism. His character, backstory and work ethic -- he should do well in interviews -- should only raise his stock. I talked with Illini defensive line coach Mike Phair a few weeks ago and he said Ward has only started to scratch the surface of his potential. Ward came in as a raw junior college prospect and played the first half of 2014 on pure ability alone. He was a true difference maker in his last 16 games or so. He'll have a big chance to raise his stock at the Senior Bowl. The practices and workouts there, where scouts get an up-close view, are more important than the game.
Josh Ferguson has the right skill set for today's NFL. He has enough speed and elusiveness and is stronger than most assume. His true value comes in the passing game, however. He's an elite receiver and a very reliable pass blocker. He isn't a workhorse back at the next level but can fit in as a complementary piece, a la former Illini Pierre Thomas. Ferguson must prove his breakaway speed in workouts and check out medically (he had multiple injuries at Illinois). Then it's about finding the right team. He will participate in the East-West Shrine Game on Jan. 23.
V'Angelo Bentley likely won't make the NFL just as a cornerback. But his return ability gives him a chance. NFL roster spots are treated like gold, so bottom of the roster guys must be versatile. Bentley has the speed and enough physicality to play in nickel and dime packages and could be an NFL returner. That versatility gives him a shot. NFL teams have been scouting him hard since training camp. He'll play in the East-West Shrine Game too.
Clayton Fejedelem has the chance to go from NAIA to walk-on to Big Ten starter to NFL. Watch his tape. There are few Big Ten safeties as effective against the run. He has great instincts in the run game, great physicality and is one of the better Illini tacklers in recent memory. He has the speed to hold up in coverage but got beat deep a bit too often, often in play action. Fejedelem looks like a special teams stud, though. If he can prove that he can play safety, his NFL dreams may come true. He'll play in the East-West Shrine Game, as well.
Ted Karras may not get drafted. But I wouldn't put it past him to make an NFL roster and hang around the NFL for a while. Karras was the model of consistency at Illinois. He might not have any elite traits (outside of tenacity), but he's solid to good at the Big Ten level in most areas. None of us thought David Diehl would turn into a longtime NFL starter. I'm not saying Karras is Diehl, but he has that potential. He'll play in the East-West Shrine Game.
Geronimo Allison has an uphill climb to the NFL, in my opinion. He has the size (6-foot-3) and has a large catching radius, but he doesn't have great speed and had way too many drops this season. If his speed tests well though, he may get drafted. His best bet is to impress in a training camp. He'll also play in the East-West Shrine Game.
If you haven't heard, Mason Monheim's football career is over. The former linebacker (seventh on the Illini career tackles list) will enroll in dental school. And yes, he's cutting the hair, he told me near the end of the season.
Illinois may has a similar group of NFL Draft prospects next season. DE Dawuane Smoot has the mix of size and speed that NFL teams want on the edge. DT Chunky Clements has a nice combination of size and quickness. He just needs more production during his senior season. DE Carroll Phillips has the quicks to be a pass-rush specialist and has the potential for a breakout senior season. OT Austin Schmidt is a very reliable pass blocker with long arms, but he just lacks the strength of an NFL starter. Junior tackle Christian DiLauro has a more complete skill set and looks like a future pro at times. DT Teko Powell would be a prospect if not for a terrible foot that has derailed his career. Of course, QB Wes Lunt could be the most high-profile prospect if he has a big senior season. He has the size and arm NFL teams want, even if his lack of mobility is a hindrance. His best trait is his accuracy, which was masked by about 60 receiver drops this season. My biggest questions for him would be his leadership ability and his pocket presence. Behind a shaky offensive line, he sometimes gets happy feet or bails on plays too early instead of stepping up in the pocket. Lunt isn't a top prospect now, but he's been on scouts' radars for two or three years.
Underclassmen who have shown early NFL potential include: WR Mikey Dudek, RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn, OT Gabe Megginson, DT Jamal Milan, WR Malik Turner and WR Sam Mays.
Illinois needs more players with NFL potential, especially on defense. Coaches can only coach-up players so much. Talent wins out. Two of the most talented teams in the country -- only Ohio State and Notre Dame probably had more or as much talent as Alabama and Clemson -- were playing in the national title game. While Illinois isn't in position to get those type of players yet -- Michigan State is just arriving at that level after a decade of building -- they need more NFL talents to truly compete in the Big Ten. The new-look Illini staff is really prioritizing bigger, stronger players up front. You have to start somewhere.