Likely 2017 picks
Dawuane Smoot is coming into the NFL at a perfect time. NFL teams are looking for versatile defenders who can play in multiple packages. The strong and fast Smoot can play on the line as a 4-3 hand-on-the-ground defensive end (which he does at Illinois) or as a stand-up 3-4 outside linebacker who can rush the quarterback or drop into coverage. He's rated too low on CBSSports.com's 2017 defensive end rankings at No. 26. He enters his senior season as one of the Big Ten's top pass rushers (15.0 TFLs, 8.0 sacks last season) and could be in for an even better 2016.
Like Smoot, Jarrod "Chunky" Clements is rated too low by CBS at No. 40 among senior defensive tackles. The 6-foot-3, 290-pound senior only had 0.5 sacks as a junior but he was disruptive in the backfield, registering 11.5 tackles for loss. Clements has a great initial burst off the line of scrimmage and is an ideal fit as a pass-rushing 3-technique in a 4-3 defense.
Ranked the No. 4 senior inside linebacker by CBS, incoming graduate transfer Hardy Nickerson gives the Illini a much-needed smart, physical and productive MIKE linebacker in the middle of their young back seven. Nickerson probably won't wow NFL teams in Combine workouts, but he's just a really good football player who should shine in 2016 behind a strong Illini defensive line.
Possible 2017 picks
Ranked the No. 13 senior quarterback prospect by CBS, Wes Lunt has a lot of similarities to former Indiana QB Nate Sudfeld who was drafted in the sixth round by Washington. Lunt has the traits of an NFL pocket passer. He's big (6-foot-5, 225 pounds), has the strong arm to make all the throws and is accurate. However, he is very stationary, goes down easily and the soft-spoken signal caller hasn't led his team to many wins. Now, not all of that is on Lunt. His receivers dropped 60 passes last season (yet he still completed 56.1 percent of passes) and his offensive line was shaky in 2014. With seemingly so few great QB prospects next season, Lunt has the chance to rise up the board. But he must have a good season and show leadership qualities NFL teams want out of their quarterback.
Like Smoot, Carroll Phillips is entering the league at the right time. He's a bit undersized at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds but he has a great burst off the edge and has the versatility to play on the line of scrimmage and off of it. He could be in for a big year opposite Smoot and would fit well as a pass-rush specialist in NFL subpackages.
Illini senior tackle Austin Schmidt isn't on many radars -- CBS ranks him as the No. 59 senior offensive tackle -- but he had a strong junior season protecting Lunt and was the Illini's best lineman during spring camp. He's added strength to a once weaker frame, but his big strength is his long arms that keep pass rushers at bay. He's a plus pass protector who could show more as a run blocker in Garrick McGee's pro-style scheme.
Prospects to watch
Illini sophomore running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn is going to be the Illini's workhorse in McGee's power-run offense for the next two seasons. He has a nice blend of power and speed. He's an advanced pass protector for his age and is a solid receiver out of the backfield. He has good vision but started doubting himself last season during Big Ten play. He should look more comfortable and should put up big numbers if he stays healthy.
Redshirt junior tackle Christian DiLauro arrived at Illinois as an undersized high school tight end. He's now a 6-foot-5, 300-pound offensive tackle with the quick feet to excel in the pass game and the nasty streak to succeed in the run game. CBS ranks him as the No. 26 best junior tackle prospect.
Junior wide receiver Malik Turner still has a lot to prove, but he flashed his potential toward the end of last season (39 catches, 510 yards, three touchdowns). He has the size (6-foot-3, 205 pounds), athleticism and physicality (he's a strong run blocker) to turn into a No. 1 Big Ten wideout. Now, he must prove it.
If it weren't for the injuries, Mike Dudek would be a no-brainer as a future pro. Make all the small, white slot receiver comparisons you want -- Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, etc. -- but Dudek has the speed, agility, leaping ability and work ethic to make it as a pro. Here's hoping he soon regains his health too.
Redshirt junior cornerback Jaylen Dunlap hasn't played a lot yet, but he has the length (6-foot-1) and physicality that NFL teams want in cornerbacks. Now, it's time to prove it on the field.
Redshirt freshman Jamal Milan has played just one collegiate game -- he received a medical redshirt after suffering a knee sprain -- but he showed at last fall's training camp that he the combination of strength and burst of a big-time disruptor.
Like Milan, redshirt freshman offensive lineman Gabe Megginson hasn't proven anything on the field. But he has the foundation size (6-foot-5, 300 pounds) and athleticism of a pro. He's the frontrunner for the open guard competition and could end up being a career starter for Illinois.