The college football season is nearly over, which means it’s almost time to start looking ahead to the NFL Draft.
Which Big Ten players could become more of a household name in the NFL than they were in college? Here are five guesses.
P.S. You’ll notice a trend with this list. Yeah, there’s a few wide receivers. The thinking behind that is when talented pass catchers play with more accurate and advanced quarterbacks, their production sky rockets. Take a look at AJ Brown and DK Metcalf (and even Dawson Knox), who weren’t really household names at Ole Miss. But put them in NFL offenses with competent quarterbacks, and boom, production sky rockets.
1. Donovan Peoples-Jones (Michigan)
The No. 1 wideout in the 2017 class never really broke out for the Wolverines. His best season was as a sophomore, when he tallied 612 receiving yards (finishing a close second to Nico Collins for the team lead) and eight touchdowns. Those numbers dropped to 438 and six scores in 2019, with Ronnie Bell and Collins ahead of him in the pecking order.
How much of that regression was due to Shea Patterson’s down year? Patterson’s accuracy dipped from 64.6 percent as a junior to 56.2 percent this season, as he often overthrew open receivers. Peoples-Jones will benefit from a more accurate passer at the next level.
Even though his production wasn’t near what you’d expect from the top receiver in a class, Peoples-Jones will probably be drafted in the first few rounds. The talent and potential is there. For whatever reason, Peoples-Jones did not reach his ceiling at Michigan.
2. KJ Hill (Ohio State)
Is it strange to say Ohio State’s all-time receptions leader is a little underrated? Yeah, maybe. But Hill was a solid college player who was never really a star. He never led Ohio State in receiving yards in a season, as Curtis Samuel, Parris Campbell and Chris Olave were always just a little more productive.
Ohio State has a strong track record in recent years of receivers going on to stardom in the NFL, with Samuel, Michael Thomas and Terry McLaurin of note. Thomas was good with Ohio State, but now he is arguably the top wideout in the NFL. Like Hill, McLaurin never led Ohio State in receiving yards in a season, yet he was one of the top rookie wide receivers in the NFL this season.
3. Nate Stanley (Iowa)
Hear me out on this one. I’m not claiming Nate Stanley will be some world-beater in the NFL (no one will confuse him with Lamar Jackson or Kyler Murray), but he has the size and arm strength to be a serviceable pro. Maybe that’s as a career backup, and that’s fine. If he can become a little more accurate, he’ll bring all those tools together.
I think Stanley can do more than he showed at Iowa, which employs a conservative offense that won’t risk putting its defense in a bad position. And Stanley was pretty good at Iowa, by the way.
Consider this: Since 2000 (as far as College Football Reference’s database goes back), Stanley has the eighth-most passing touchdowns in the Big Ten. He has more touchdown passes and fewer interceptions (68 TD-23 INT) than Kirk Cousins (66-30), Kyle Orton (61-24) and Terrelle Pryor (57-26). David Blough, who threw 43 interceptions in the same amount of games as Stanley, got five starts for the Detroit Lions this season. Stanley will get a chance somewhere, and in a more quarterback-friendly system, he may be even better.
4. Quintez Cephus (Wisconsin)
Cephus somehow put up 901 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on 59 receptions as a junior. Playing in an offense centered around star back Jonathan Taylor and a game manager at quarterback in Jack Coan, Cephus excelled. But he was never the guy you’d bring up to your buddies; that honor always went to Taylor.
And that’s not even the half of it. Cephus missed the final five games of 2017 and then was suspended all of last season after being charged with sexual assault. Cephus was acquitted and then reinstated just before the season started. All he did this season was produce, and usually it resulted in a highlight-reel catch. He should do even more of this in the NFL.
5. KJ Hamler (Penn State)
Hamler was a big play waiting to happen, and he has the sort of skill set that NFL teams crave, even if he is just 5-foot-9. Hamler could be the next great NFL wideout from Penn State, following Chris Godwin and Allen Robinson. Hamler put up 904 receiving yards and eight touchdowns this season, and depending where he lands in the NFL Draft, he could thrive even more.
The junior had a huge game against Michigan with 108 receiving yards and two touchdowns, but he didn’t find the end zone or eclipse 52 yards in his final four games, including the showdown with Ohio State and the Cotton Bowl against Memphis.