I've always been a sports nerd. As a kid, I carried a notebook full of my MLB, NBA and NFL predictions and stats. When I was about nine or ten years old, I took a special affinity for the NFL Draft. Why?Maybe it was the feeling of hope that the two-day marathon of selecting college players provided for a young Bears fan. Maybe it was the marriage of the college and pro games that I loved so much. Maybe it was the imperfect projection of college talent to the professional game. Regardless, I've been a draft junkie for decades. My mother used to call the weekend my "Christmas Day." Everyone knew that I wasn't leaving the house on Saturday or Sunday. I think I even made a mock draft web site one using one of those GeoCities sites. Remember those? I emulated my draft nerd heroes Mel Kiper Jr. and Joel Buschbaum. Most of you know Kiper. Most of you probably don't know Buschbaum, but he was the longtime editor of Pro Football Weekly and published what I called my "NFL Draft Bible," PFW's glossy, paperback draft book that is made available for $19.95 every spring. Buschbaum passed away more than a decade ago, but his book remains alive -- though it has changed names, publishers and authors. His protege, Nolan Nawrocki, has led PFW's draft coverage from 2003-2013 and now leads an independently-led draft guide. Sometimes, his evaluations create some controversy, most notably his clobbering of Cam Newton. Nawrocki is a former Illini walk-on and lives in Elmhurst. He has a vast network of NFL and scouting contacts and his book is a must read. Consider ordering it. I just received mine in the mail.
When I first receive Nawrocki's book, the first thing I do -- especially now with this job -- is jump to his breakdown of each Illini prospect. The last few years, that's been a bit depressing. The Illini had no real draft prospects last season. Jonathan Brown was the only prospect in 2014, and he went undrafted. No Illini has been drafted the last two years. While the Illini struggled during the Ron Zook era, they could take pride in their player participation in the NFL. But that number is quickly dropping, from the mid-20s a few years ago to the low teens now. But at least that draft drought will end this month. The Illini have two no-doubt draftable players: Jihad Ward and Josh Ferguson. A few other Illini -- Geronimo Allison, V'Angelo Bentley, Ted Karras and Clayton Fejedelem -- also have a chance to hear their names called. Nawrocki's book gives us a clearer picture on their pro prospects.
Jihad Ward is a phenomenal prospect. Nawrocki's breakdown of the 6-foot-5, 297-pound defensive lineman is similar to many others' in his field. Ward is best suited as a 3-4 defensive end or as a 4-3 three-technique DT. What do NFL teams like about Ward? He has all the raw physical traits you want in a defensive lineman, traits you can't teach. And as Nawrocki perfectly puts it, Ward "has overcome a lot of adversity in his life and is very determined and driven to succeed." Ward not only has talent, but you know he's going to work hard every day. NFL teams like that. Nawrocki also reiterates what I've said often: you'll fall in love with Ward if you watch film of his game against Iowa, where he owned the line of scrimmage and showed great chasing ability down the line of scrimmage. Ward's flaws? He's still a bit raw. He didn't dominate production-wise and only showed flashes of his ability at Illinois after transitioning from high school receiver to JUCO defensive lineman to Big Ten defensive lineman. He plays high and needs to add upper-body strength. Nawrocki labels Ward as the sixth best defensive end prospect in the class, the 54th-best overall prospect and as a likely second-round draft pick. Nawrocki writes, Ward "has unique tools that cannot be taught and has as much upside as any player in the draft." That upside and work ethic will earn Ward an early selection.
Nawrocki's analysis of running back Josh Ferguson is an eye opener. Like most draftniks, Nawrocki labels Ferguson as a fourth- or fifth-round draft pick. Like most draftniks, Nawrocki has high praise for Ferguson's feet, speed, agility, receiving ability, intelligence and pound-for-pound strength. Ferguson is a great fit in a pass-happy NFL. But go to the "weaknesses" section and Ferguson is raked over the coals. Nawrocki writes that Ferguson "does not play through injuries and taps out for soft-tissue injuries. Has some diva qualities." Under the Scout's Take section, a scout is quoted as saying, "You wonder if he has been saving himself for the NFL with some of the phantom injuries that have kept him out. The National Football League is for full-grown men. I'm not sure he is tough enough to play in this league." Ouch. Ferguson struggled to complete games at Illinois. Coaches never fully explained why. Does he have a physical issue? Is it a mental issue? It's fair to say those were the biggest questions for NFL teams during this process. Ferguson certainly has the physical traits to play in the NFL.
I don't think Geronimo Allison has those physical traits, and neither does Nawrocki. His breakdown of Allison is pretty lopsided. Only three lines for his strengths: length, ball skills and accountability. Fourteen lines are devoted to his weaknesses: lack of strength, speed, burst, agility, route running, body control and hands. Allison had nice performances in the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl, but I don't think I'd spend a draft pick on him. Neither would Nawrocki.
Clayton Fejedelem made it in a book of NFL draft prospects -- a huge compliment to the former walk-on's perseverance. But Nawrocki did spell his name wrong, "Fejedelm." Certainly, Fejedelem is still making a name for himself. You all should know my feelings about Fejedelem by now. Spend a late-round pick on him and get a special teams ace for the next five years, maybe more. Nawrocki compliments Fejedelem's workout numbers and says the Illini safety "is the type you root for." But Nawrocki says Fejedelem "faces an uphill battle to stick" in the NFL. Fejedelem certainly has some limitations. He's a phenomenal tackler but struggled in his few tests against the pass. Nawrocki calls him "stiff and straight-linish," which is fair. Can Fejedelem play safety in the NFL? I'm not sure. But one line sums it up well: "Profiles as a core special teams player."
Ted Karras and V'Angelo Bentley do not receive individual breakdowns in the book. Karras is listed as Nawrocki's 42nd-best guard. Karras likely will go undrafted and receive a camp invite. Karras has the solid overall skill set, work ethic and tenacity to stick in the NFL. But is he the same player following a torn ACL in 2014? He's definitely worth a free-agent flyer though. Bentley has great speed and had moments where he looked like a possible NFL returner. But he wasn't very productive on special teams last year, and at 5-foot-8 just doesn't project very well as an NFL cornerback.
Illinois will have more players in Nawrocki's 2017 book. Defensive end Dawuane Smoot projects well as a 3-4 outside linebacker. With a big year, he could be in consideration for the top few rounds. Some fans may be off the Wes Lunt bandwagon, but I don't see many differences between him and Christian Hackenberg. He's intelligent, has a big arm and is accurate. Of course, Lunt is immobile and needs to improve his pocket presence. He also needs his teammates to help him out a little bit. Mikey Dudek's injury obviously doesn't help. Jarrod Clements has plenty of NFL potential as a three-technique. Don't count out offensive tackle Austin Schmidt, a great pass protector, or pass-rush specialist Carroll Phillips.