Illinois has six players who could possibly go in the 2016 NFL draft. Jihad Ward, Josh Ferguson, and Geronimo Allison all will try to improve their draft status next week at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. Each player will be examined medically and tested mentally and physically. Clayton Fejedelem, V'Angelo Bentley and Ted Karras will have to wait until Illinois hosts its official pro day (Thursday, March 10) to record their bench press, 40 time and change of direction drills.
Regardless, Illinois will end its two-year drought of draft picks. Will Ward become the sixth Illini since 2008 to get selected in the first round? How many Illini will get drafted?
Let's break down the strengths, weaknesses and best fits of the Illini NFL Draft prospects and project their final destinations.
Jihad Ward, DL
Strengths: Regardless of scheme, Ward's size (6-foot-6, 295 pounds) and length will be an asset to any defense. He plays with high energy, technique and competitive toughness. Ward is also versatile enough to play both DT and DE. His low pad level helps him stop the run and push the pocket, especially from the inside.
Weaknesses: Initially, Ward may struggle with shedding blocks versus the run. Offensive linemen at the NFL level have supreme hand combat skills while striking defensive linemen and sustaining their blocks. Ward will have to get used to taking on more double teams because his natural position in the NFL will be DT. Rushing the QB will be an adjustment too. Ward has to develop a variety of pass rush moves because OL can quickly counter with their punch and body position.
Best Fit in the NFL: New England Patriots or Seattle Seahawks. The Patriots like players who can play multiple positions because they can change into multiple defensive fronts from week to week. With Ward's ability to play inside and out, he could be the catalyst of the DL. Seattle is still searching for a "run force" DE like former Seahawk Red Bryant, who strictly lined up to the offenses strong side.
Projection: Between rounds 1 and 2 to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles will switch back to a One Gap 4-3 system and could use more DL depth.
Geronimo Allison, WR
Strengths: Allison displays plus play speed because of his ability to run smooth and precise routes. He processes the difference between zone and man coverages on the run. And Allison (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) shows a big catch radius hauling in catches away from his body.
Weaknesses: Allison will have to adjust to press coverage. He has the length to defeat the press but will need strength and hand play to win outside the numbers. His play speed will need to improve to gain consistent separation when the ball is thrown in his direction.
Best Fit in the NFL: L.A. Rams. The Rams will be looking to add more receiver depth on the perimeter to complement slot WR Tavon Austin.
Projection: Between rounds 4-7
Josh Ferguson, RB
Strengths: Ferguson (5-foot-11, 205 pounds) has a unique skill set because he is versatile enough to run and catch the ball effectively. He has the play speed to make the first defender miss and shows play strength to break tackles. Ferguson also has the patience to set up blocks an the vision to bang, bounce and bend the ball.
Weaknesses: Pass protection will be an adjustment. Ferguson rarely stayed in the backfield because he was an asset in the passing game. His durability is a concern because he missed several games due to injury. He will have to make the adjustment of playing special teams (roster spots are at a premium in the NFL), participating on both punt and kickoff coverage units.
Best Fit in the NFL: New England Patriots. The Patriots use their RBs as receivers coming out of the backfield. He can definitely be a safety outlet for QB Tom Brady.
Projection: Between rounds 5-7 to the New Orleans Saints
Ted Karras, OL
Strengths: Karras (6-foot-4, 310 pounds) shows competitive toughness with initial contact at the LOS. He shows good athleticism pulling from his right to left. Gets good position on down blocks and works his way to the second level.
Weaknesses: Will have to develop consistent point strength to re-establish the line of scrimmage. Karras must develop a punch in pass protection. There also is a possibility that he will have to make the position switch to center and develop quick mental processing.
Best Fit in the NFL: Cleveland Browns. New head coach Hue Jackson believes in pounding the football with gap schemes. This scheme will highlight Karras' ability to pull to the edge or in the open field.
Projection: Rounds 6-7 or Undrafted Free Agent.
V'Angelo Bentley, DB
Strengths: Bentley (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) has the versatility to line up on the outside or inside to cover the slot. He shows good feet and quickness off the line. But what sets him apart is his production to return punt and kickoffs. Return men in the NFL are hard to find.
Weaknesses: Has to develop strength to redirect bigger slot WRs and TEs. Will have to show better competitive toughness fighting for the ball to intercept or break up passes.
Best Fit in the NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars because they play more match-up zone coverage than pure man. The Jaguars need cornerback depth and a return specialist to gain better field position.
Projection: Rounds 6-7 or Undrafted Free Agent
Clayton Fejedelem, DB
Strengths: Fejedelem (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) quickly diagnoses the run and pass. Fejedelem, a former NAIA player and walk-on at Illinois, will fill the alley versus the run and finish the tackle. The Big Ten leader in tacklers last year, Fejedelem has the ability to cover kicks and play ALL special teams units.
Weaknesses: Can be over-aggressive versus the run, which leaves him susceptible to play action. He will have trouble in space covering TEs and slot WRs.
Best Fit in the NFL: Fejedelem can be used as a hybrid safety in the Big Nickel or 3 safety look. The L.A. Rams may be looking for a replacement for free agent hybrid LB/SS Mark Barron.
Projection: Rounds 6-7 or Undrafted Free Agent
Micheal Young is the football analyst for IlliniInquirer.com. Young was a four-year starter for Illinois football and a team captain. The St. Louis native also played for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals from 2001-04. He serves as a color analyst for several broadcast outlets and co-hosts an Illini podcast with former UI teammate Carey Davis on Huddlepass.com.