Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett occasionally will give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.
The NFL draft takes place this week (you may have heard a little bit about it). We're going to take a look at a few questions surrounding the Big Ten's draft class this week. We begin with Today's Take Two topic: Who is the best future pro out of the Big Ten's 2014 NFL draft prospects?
Take 1: Brian Bennett
Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan will very likely be the first Big Ten player drafted, and thanks to his talent and the position he plays, he could be looking at a long NFL career. But the first guy I would draft from the league is Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. I say this with a bit of hesitation, since the drafting of cornerbacks has proved to be a volatile proposition over the years. It's not always easy to project how corners will adjust to the next level, when they will face much better receivers and quarterbacks who are much more able to pinpoint their passes than at the college level. You could make the case that Dennard didn't face a wealth of NFL talent at wideout playing in the Big Ten the past few years (though I'd counter that this year's draft crop of Big Ten receivers is actually pretty strong).
There are a couple of reasons why I think Dennard will quickly adapt to the next level, however. One is the system he played in at Michigan State. Head coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi like to put their cornerbacks on an island a whole lot, and Dennard showed a tremendous ability both to be physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage and to cover them one-on-one in space. I also think he has great instincts for the game and is a very coachable player. The NFL has evolved into a pass-first league, and while the rules favor offenses, having a shutdown cornerback is an enormous luxury. I think Dennard can be just that.
Take 2: Adam Rittenberg
I definitely considered both Lewan and Dennard, two players with the potential for long and successful pro careers. But I wonder if Dennard will reach the upper echelon of NFL corners -- the Richard Shermans, Patrick Petersons, Joe Hadens, Darrelle Revises -- or simply be a very good pro. It's a bit surprising he's not projected higher in the first round, as I thought he had top 10 potential after earning consensus All-America honors and the Jim Thorpe Award as a senior. It would have been nice to see Dennard face Penn State's Allen Robinson or Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis last season. We'll see how it turns out for him.
When it comes to the draft, I always look for guys with unique skills who haven't come close to their ceiling yet. Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman is one of those guys. Hageman doesn't look like a normal defensive tackle. He's long and lean but still powerful. He can affect games not just by taking up space or overpowering interior linemen, but by knocking down passes. Hageman was quiet early in his career as he needed to mature both physically and mentally and settle into the defensive tackle role. We saw what he could do last season as a more polished player, as he led Minnesota in tackles for loss (13) and ranked second in pass breakups (8). His pre-draft performance illustrates a player who continues to climb, not plateau, in his development.
Hageman needs to be in the right place with the right coaches, but his potential for elite play could be higher than that of any other Big Ten player in the draft. There are safer picks here like Lewan, Dennard and Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, but I'm going with the guy who is still nowhere near what he could be at the next level.