There were plenty of them this year.

Jack Conklin, Ezekiel Elliott, Christian Hackenberg, Jordan Howard, Cardale Jones, Jalin Marshall and Mike Thomas all have something in common. They were B1G offensive players who left early for the NFL draft.

This year could be a different story.

It’s way too early to definitively say that there won’t be as many offensive underclassmen in the 2017 draft. Maybe J.T. Barrett is in the Heisman Trophy conversation and he feels he’s ready. Maybe De’Mornay Pierson-El has the All-American season some expected him to have last year and decides his stock will never be higher. But right now, it doesn’t look likely. There could, however, be plenty of B1G defensive players who leave early for the NFL.

Here’s an early but educated guess at the B1G players who could bolt after the 2016 season.

DB Jabrill Peppers, Michigan — An obvious choice on this list, Peppers is the dynamic athlete in the secondary who could make an immediate impact in the NFL. Whether he plays linebacker, safety or any of his other 10 positions, Peppers will have plenty of attention on him by season’s end. As much as Michigan fans have visions of Peppers and Rashan Gary starring on the same defense for the next couple years, this will likely be Peppers’ last go-around in Ann Arbor because of his next-level upside.

DT Maurice Hurst, Michigan — I know everybody in Ann Arbor is fired up about Gary, but Hurst could be in for a big season in Don Brown’s defense. He emerged as a sophomore last year and he could be in line to see his numbers spike with Chris Wormley drawing so much attention up front. Hurst has NFL genes and given Michigan’s crowded and talented line, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him leave early. Pro Football Focus already tabbed Hurst as a first-round pick in an early 2017 mock draft.

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DT Malik McDowell, Michigan State — Perhaps the top B1G prospect in the 2017 draft, the former five-star recruit already said he thinks he’s the best defensive lineman in the country. He’s a disruptive interior pass-rusher who moves more like a defensive end. Barring injury, McDowell will be high on draft boards throughout the 2016 season. As long as his production doesn’t take a major dip without Shilique Calhoun, Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas, McDowell could be in the top-five conversation.

LB Anthony Walker, Northwestern — It’s rare to see a Northwestern player bolt early, but if there was ever a guy who could do it, it’s Walker. As a sophomore, he received All-America honors and finished second in the country in tackles for loss. Pat Fitzgerald already said he could become the best linebacker in school history. Walker has the size (6-1, 235 pounds) to play at the next level, and another All-American season could make him an enticing prospect.


CB Gareon Conley, Ohio State — Ohio State’s 2016 draft class taught us that anybody in a prominent role for two years in Columbus could be out the door. That could easily by Conley, who emerged as one of the conference’s best cover corners in 2015. As Ohio State’s top cornerback this year, he’ll have the chance Eli Apple did to shine against No. 1 receivers. A year under Greg Schiano could do Conley wonders, and it could help his bank account sooner rather than later.

DE Tyquan Lewis, Ohio State — The most overlooked aspect on Ohio State’s defense in 2015 was Lewis’ production. People forget that he led the team in sacks and had 14 tackles for loss. For all the talent the Buckeyes lost up front — including No. 3 overall pick Joey Bosa — they return some explosive defensive ends in Lewis and Sam Hubbard. Lewis will get another opportunity to have a productive, playmaking year and boost his stock as one of the top pass-rushers in the draft.

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LB Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State — It would’ve been interesting to see how high McMillan would’ve gone in the draft if he was eligible to come out in 2016. The Buckeyes’ leading tackler could be a first-round pick if he matches his production from 2015. On a defense that had so many playmakers, McMillan often did the dirty work. He’s big (6-2, 240 pounds), fast and polished as a tackler. If the McMillan can increase his production as a pass-rusher (five hurries, 1.5 sacks), he’ll be one of the top linebackers off the board in 2017.

DE Kemoko Turay, Rutgers — Believe it or not, there were scouts who once had Turay as a first-round pick for the 2016 draft. But an injury-plagued season prevented Turay from having the breakout year everyone predicted. He has the frame NFL teams covet (6-6, 240 pounds) and the explosiveness. But the guy who only played one season of high school football is still raw, and he’ll need to stay healthy for a full season to develop into more than just a situational pass-rusher. If he can do that, the first-round chatter could resurface again.