Illini hopeful for rise in NFL Draft prospects

Senior+offensive+lineman+Alex+Palczewski+defends+the+quarterback+during+the+game+against+Nebraska+on+Nov.+10%2C+2018+in+Lincoln%2C+Nebraska.+The+Illini+lost+54-35.

Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Senior offensive lineman Alex Palczewski defends the quarterback during the game against Nebraska on Nov. 10, 2018 in Lincoln, Nebraska. The Illini lost 54-35.

By Josh Pietsch, Staff Writer

bAfter having no one taken in the 2020 NFL draft, the Illini would love to get some names on the board next year. Luckily for them, there are a couple of guys on the team that are expected to get drafted already and a handful of others that can raise their stock to sneak into the 2021 NFL Draft.

The safest bet for any Illini to get drafted right now is Alex Palczewski. The senior right tackle has great length, strength and is the lead lineman on an offensive line that is expected to be one of the best in the conference. Palczewski has time to raise his draft stock more when the season comes and could potentially find his way into a pick as early as day two.

The offensive line produces two more draft hopefuls that seem more likely than not. Senior center Doug Kramer is one of the top returning centers in all of college football, and a productive season could land Kramer with an NFL team despite being undersized. His teammate that lines up next to him, left guard Kendrick Green, could very likely forego his senior season to enter the draft a year early. Green is one of the strongest guys on the team and has been productive as a starter for two years. It would leave no one surprised if he left early for the NFL. 

Quarterback Brandon Peters, wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe and left tackle Vederian Lowe are among those that would need an impressive senior season to sneak into the draft. If Peters improves the way some are expecting him to and is a top-five or six quarterback in the league, there is a chance he could sneak in as a late-round pick. Imatorbhebhe has received national attention since high school and has great hands, size and leaping ability. If he improves his route-running and stays more consistent, he too could be a third-day draft selection. Lowe has also struggled with consistency over the years with Ilinois but the senior showed a lot of promise last season. Consistent productivity and more pressure on the quarterback could lead Lowe into the draft as well. 

Transfer junior tight end Luke Ford will likely be drafted one day, but saying it will be in 2021 may be a stretch. Ford has one of the best skill sets of any Illini and has great size and strength. Due to transfer rules, he would be eligible to enter the draft after his sophomore season, but unless it is an all-American performance, Illinois will probably get Ford back for a senior season. 

Seniors linebacker Milo Eifler and cornerback Nate Hobbs seem to be the two safest bets on the defensive side of the ball to hear their name called in the 2021 draft. Both had impressive junior seasons and came up big in key moments for the Illini, raising their stock and making them legit contenders for a draft spot. Both are athletic with nice size and quickness and any improvement during their senior season should land them in the draft.

Senior linebacker Jake Hansen has a chance to get drafted in 2021 due to his ability to make big plays and show up in key moments. He doesn’t have any elite physical traits, which hurts his draft stock, but the senior is a leader on the team and led the nation in forced fumbles last year despite missing four games due to injury. A very impressive senior season and more forced turnovers might just get Hansen into the draft, and he’ll almost surely get into an NFL camp.

Arguably the best at his position on the whole roster, senior punter Blake Hayes has a serious shot at getting drafted in 2021. The Australian-born senior is the reigning Big Ten Punter of the Year and would be a lock for the draft if his position wasn’t valued so little. Only two punters were drafted in 2020, but if the trend continues, Hayes’ name has to be considered for a day-three draft selection. 

Other players that are hopeful for the draft but seem less likely include senior defensive back Tony Adams, junior running back Mike Epstein, senior wide receiver Trevon Sidney, senior kicker James McCourt and senior defensive end Isaiah Gay. All these players have some draft potential but would need to improve tremendously and stand out this season in order to have a shot at landing a spot in the draft.

Although the 2020 draft didn’t feature any Illini, there is optimism the next draft will be very different. Illinois didn’t have any draft selections in 2015, 2016 or 2018 either, but with plenty of guys with increasing draft stock, we should expect a number of Illini to be a part of the 2021 NFL Draft.

@JPietsch14

[email protected]