The history of strong defensive play in the Big Ten is unparalleled, but not just on the college level.
As we've seen in the past four NFL seasons, B1G linebackers, in particular, go on to have tremendous professional success. There may not be a hefty amount of first-round draft picks in that span, but several former-Big Ten talents are among the best in the NFL – at any position. Conference spokesman Nick Saban might not agree, but there were several poor draft selections, as well.
Last week, The Gazette compiled a list of the top draft-producing Big Ten schools. Iowa stunningly topped the list with 19 NFL draft picks this decade. Ohio State trails them by two, and only produced one first-rounder since 2010.
Neither school is represented on the first half of this list, the best of the 139 total NFL draftees to come out of the Big Ten in the last four years.
The Top Five
1. J.J. Watt – Houston Texans (2011, Round 1, No. 11)
Seven years ago, no one could've imagined that a bad college tight end in the MAC would turn into the most feared defensive player in the NFL.
After transferring to Wisconsin from Central Michigan, Watt converted to defensive end and quickly ignited his rise. It takes a lot to get a decent return on the value of the No. 11 overall pick, but Watt's now a two-time Pro Bowler, a winner of the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award and has amassed 31 sacks in the past two seasons.
2. Russell Wilson – Seattle Seahawks (2012, Round 3, No. 75)
If only attending grad school at a college makes you an ambassador for that university, then Ted Kaczynski is Michigan's greatest product.
Also, Russell Wilson probably considers himself more of a Badger than a member of the Wolfpack. Since leaving Wisconsin, Wilson has ascended to superstardom as the quarterback of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. He's thrown 26 touchdown passes in each of his two seasons and is now the go-to comparison for all undersized quarterbacks in college.
3. Lavonte David – Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2012, Round 2, No. 58)
Like Wilson, Lavonte David only spent a year in the Big Ten.
Still, the conference can take credit for him and add his name to the illustrious history of linebackers to come from the Big Ten. He left Nebraska as a highly regarded outside linebacker, although there were "concerns" about his size. He quickly struck those notions down and has been a force on a strong, young Tampa Bay unit.
David has 219 career solo tackles and, in his rookie season, led all linebackers in run stop percentage. Combine that with his pass rushing abilities and he should continue to dominate under new head coach Lovie Smith.
4. NaVorro Bowman – San Francisco 49ers (2010, Round 3, No. 91)
While he's behind David on this list, NaVorro Bowman's numbers and value are on par with David's.
As an anchor for one of the best defenses in the NFL, Bowman has been a dominant presence on the inside. The Penn State product has 482 combined tackles in his career and is as good in pass coverage as any linebacker in the NFL (save for, maybe, his teammate Patrick Willis). Don't let that overshadow his abilities to pressure the quarterback, as he ranked in the top eight in Pro Football Focus' pass rushing productivity, last season.
Bowman's legacy will include a play that changed the NFL rulebook, but it doesn't help his knee heal.
5. Sean Lee – Dallas Cowboys (2010, Round 2, No. 55)
Rounding out the list is another Penn State linebacker – Dallas' Sean Lee.
If not for injuries, he might be higher on this list. In the last two seasons, he's only played 17 games. Still, in only 11 games, he combined for 99 tackles and four interceptions. Before his neck injury, Lee owned the third best run-stop percentage among inside linebackers and won October's Defensive Player of the Month.
The Bottom Five
1. Gabe Carimi – Chicago Bears (2011, Round 1, No. 29)
You know it's bad when one of the top Google searches for your name includes the word "bust" (
Kate Upton Brooklyn Decker notwithstanding).
Had the Bears hit on their 2011 first round pick with an offensive tackle, perhaps Jay Cutler wouldn't get so rattled behind his line. Carimi came into the draft as one of the highest ranked players at his position, with his toughness in run blocking being his key trait.
The former Badger never evolved into a franchise left tackle, so Chicago recoginized their mistake and traded him to Tampa Bay. One year later, he's now a member of the Atlanta Falcons.
2. A.J. Jenkins – San Francisco 49ers (2012, Round 1, No. 30)
As well as the 49ers have drafted under head coach Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke, they haven't picked a solid deep threat for Colin Kaepernick.
Former Illinois wideout A.J. Jenkins is a recent example of their failure to surround Kaepernick with more weapons. He spent only one season in San Francisco, dropping the only pass targeted for him.
Now, Jenkins is on the Chiefs, who traded the disappointing Jon Baldwin for him. In his only season with Kansas City, he caught only eight passes. For a first round pick, that is incredibly disappointing.
3. Arrelious Benn – Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2010, Round 2, No. 39)
To Benn's credit, he didn't have a quarterback like Kaepernick.
It takes an incredible amount of talent to reel in a Josh Freeman pass, and Benn caught around 50 of them in his career. Blame injuries – he's missed most of the last two seasons with various health issues – but an early second round wide receiver should be playing at or near an All-Pro level.
Instead, the Illinois product finds himself on the Eagles after getting traded for a seventh round pick. Not quite the return the Bucs expected.
4. Pat Angerer – Indianapolis Colts (2010, Round 2, No. 63)
While it's difficult to judge players with such a small sample size, it doesn't bode well for someone's career when he's still a free agent in May.
Pat Angerer is still searching for a job after four seasons with the Colts. He played in 54 games, a great opportunity for someone who has shown only a few flashes. To be fair, he's missed five regular season games in each of the past two seasons, but he still didn't show much when he was healthy.
5. Brandon Graham – Philadelphia Eagles (2010, Round 1, No. 13)
He's the only player on this portion of the list still with the team that drafted him.
However, Brandon Graham has not proven himself worthy of the No. 13 overall pick. Graham, a Michigan man, has less than 350 snaps in his four seasons with the Eagles. In that span, he's accumulated 11.5 sacks, not enough for a first round edge rusher. He's been solid at generating pressure, but his 31.1 percent sack conversion rate is below the league average.