Bright NFL futures await Big Ten's premier 2015 season talent

By Dan Escalona

In many ways, college football is a glorified farm system for the NFL.

Outside of the common college football debates — which team should be ranked where, who should win the Heisman Trophy and which conference reigns supreme — a typical theme each season involves the status of the next NFL draft class.

Though the Big Ten has a solid track record in procuring consistent NFL talent, now that the conference is in the process of restoring its national reputation, paying special attention to which players can bolster their own NFL futures will be critical to watch this season.

Fans should look at the best players in the conference in a similar fashion to how investors follow the stock market; with an eye out for long-term growth as opposed to short-term gains.

Any casual observer of the Big Ten will invariably notice the substantial depth among the conference’s quarterbacks.

Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett, Connor Cook and Christian Hackenberg will be competing as much for the title of best Big Ten quarterback as they are competing to impress NFL scouts.

Since Michigan State and Ohio State are likely the top two contenders in the conference, it is fitting that Jones, Barrett and Cook will be fighting to establish themselves as the top Big Ten quarterbacks heading into the 2016 draft.

What makes Cook the surest bet is that the Spartan carries many of the intangibles needed to wow NFL teams desperate for stability at the position.

In his two seasons as a starter, Cook can be best defined as a highly efficient quarterback who doesn’t turn the ball over and knows how to win. Consider that he has thrown for 46 touchdowns compared to 14 interceptions — about a 3:1 ratio — over his career and possesses a record of 23–3.

At Ohio State, the choice of who starts at quarterback will have a major impact on the draft status of Jones and Barrett. The odd man out may opt to stay another season, while the starter will likely make the jump to the NFL.

Jones may not be identified by the intangibles but by his size and arm strength. Both of these attributes were clearly on display in leading the Buckeyes to the national championship.

Barrett may not have the downfield arm strength or the imposing size of his competitor, though his ability to make plays with his legs makes him a solid dual-threat prospect. Given the current success of a player like Russell Wilson, he is a fascinating guy to watch in preparing for an NFL future.

The biggest Big Ten quarterback mystery this season will be Hackenberg, especially in seeing if he can finally light it up as a college quarterback and morph into an elite draft prospect. Hackenberg has all the skills to do so; it is just a matter of him living up to the hype he brought to Penn State.

Similar to Melvin Gordon of a season ago, Ezekiel Elliott not only represents the Big Ten’s best chance to take home the Heisman but also as one of the running backs with the highest professional ceiling.

On the defensive side, the Big Ten has an immensely strong crop — especially on the D–line.

In the quest to become the next great J.J. Watt–like destroyer of offensive game plans on Sundays, the battle to watch will be between Joey Bosa, Shilique Calhoun and Anthony Zettel.

All three defensive standouts have the most potential to dominate at the next level of any players in the conference, so their season-long duel is more about positioning in the first round of the draft than anything else.

All the players mentioned above are already bona fide draft prospects, though this season is more about proving where each player may be drafted and how successful they may be as professionals.

The biggest wildcard of any player in the Big Ten in terms of draft potential is quarterback-turned-wide receiver Braxton Miller.

Due to a combination of his athleticism, speed and versatility, it would not be a surprise if he excels at the position — even becoming one of the team’s most potent options.

With a strong campaign at receiver, Miller can easily become the next former college quarterback to be a productive receiver in the NFL: see Hines Ward, Julian Edelman or Antwaan Randle El.

With the Big Ten once again in the discussion of elite college football conferences, it will be of greater importance to closely follow not only how the conference performs in nonconference games and during bowl season but how it performs in late April in Chicago.

It’s not enough to rank conferences by national titles or bowl wins anymore. Nowadays, conferences are best judged by how many of its former players will be mentioned in NFL draft coverage — be it fantasy or reality.

Dan is a senior in Media.
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@danescalona77