Thirty-two players will have their name called Thursday night in the opening round of the NFL Draft. It's entirely possible none will be from a Big Ten school.
It'll be worth a headline if that's the case, because it'd be the first time in 60 years the conference would not have a player selected in the first round.
Now, it’s important to acknowledge the Big Ten has more than held its own in recent drafts. Since 2000, the conference has produced the second-most draft picks (455) behind the SEC (528).
Also consider last year’s draft: The Big Ten had 41 players selected, just one behind the SEC. The next-closest conference was the ACC, with 31 picks.
But when it comes to this year's draft, analysts are projecting some bleak numbers for the Big Ten early.
NFLDraftScout.com senior analyst Dane Brugler recently broke down the top 100 players on his draft board by conference.
Brugler has just four players from the Big Ten, and only one in the top 64, which represents the first two rounds.
Conference USA and the Big East both have more players in his top 100 than the Big Ten. The SEC has 35.
Of course, the draft is by no means the perfect place to judge conferences, or teams, for that matter. Illinois, for instance, has produced more first-rounders the past five years than any Big Ten school despite going 31-32 from 2007-2011. In fact, four of the first 48 picks in last year’s draft were from Illinois.
It’s also worth mentioning that a player such as Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan very well may have gone in the top half of this year's draft if he had not decided to go back to school.
Russell Lande, director of scouting for GM Jr. Scouting and National Football Post, also points out it’s not a given that Ohio State defensive lineman Jonathan Hankins or Purdue defensive lineman Kawann Short will be shut out of the first round.
The conference, Lande believes, is still producing its share of good lineman prospects.
“But I think what’s a little bit nerve-racking, if you’re a Big Ten person who works for the conference or the network, is you have to be a little bit concerned for the skill positions,” Lande said. “That’s where, to me, there’s nobody. You have a few running backs — Montee Ball and Le’Veon Bell. But there’s no premiere skilled guys.
“You just don’t see that many guys anymore that are considered elite prospects, which tells me they’re losing the recruiting battle for those premiere guys down in Florida and Texas and California. And they need to do better in that area if they’re going to compete on a national stage with the best teams.”
In Lande’s opinion, Michigan State tight end Dion Sims may be the highest-drafted skill player in the conference this year, perhaps in the second or third round.
“I think teams are just looking at this year, like, ‘Geez, who is there? Where is the guy?'” Lande said.
On the flip side, it’s worth pointing out running backs everywhere are expected to have to wait in this draft, with the first one possibly not being picked until the second round. And when the running backs do start coming off the board, Ball and Bell are considered among the top 10 at their position.
Add to it Nebraska’s Rex Burkhead, who Lande said would be a good value for a team in the fourth or fifth round.
Whether talking about skill positions or linemen, it’s fair to say it won’t help the perception of the Big Ten if it gets shut out of the first round this year and the SEC has 12 players picked, which is being predicted by some. Brugler has 23 of the first 64 draft picks coming from the SEC.
It’s also true the Big Ten hasn’t produced a top-10 pick since 2009, after having a player among the first top five for seven straight years.
If nothing else, it doesn’t sound good, and adds to the talking points of those who see the divide growing between the SEC and everyone else.
With that discussion, it's important to keep in mind that where a guy is drafted and what he does at the next level are two entirely different things.
Nebraska’s Lavonte David was picked near the end of last year’s second round. He had a team-high 139 tackles for Tampa Bay and was defensive rookie of the month for November. Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson was drafted in the third round. He made the Pro Bowl and was the talk of the NFL at playoff time.
Time will tell if players such Bell, Ball and Burkhead can make their own big waves after doing some waiting during the draft.
And even if the Big Ten doesn't have a player picked in the first round, analyst Scott Wright of DraftCountdown.com said he's not making much of it.
Wright hadn't realized the Big Ten didn’t have a representative on the first round of his mock board until asked about the topic this week.
He looked over his list. Sure enough, Hankins is the first Big Ten player Wright had being drafted — No. 43.
These sort of things have ebbs and flows, Wright said.
“I think it’s just one of those years where it’s a coincidence that there doesn’t happen to be a highly rated Big Ten prospect."