Illinois leads late arriving B1G first round

April, 27, 2012
4/27/12
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On the first day of the NFL draft, the Big Ten was like one of those players sitting in the green room waiting and waiting for his name to get called as everyone starts to feel really uncomfortable.

The first Big Ten player to go off the board was Iowa's Riley Reiff, who had been projected as high as the Top 10 or 15 in mock drafts just a few weeks ago. He went 23rd. According to ESPN Stats & Info, it matches the lowest-ever top pick from the league; Minnesota offensive lineman John Williams went No. 23 in 1968.

But after the long wait, the Big Ten had four of the final 10 picks of the first round, including a surprise second selection for Illinois. Let's review:

No. 23: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa to Detroit Lions

Todd McShay video analysis here.

Quotable: “"Words can't describe how happy I am right now," Reiff said. "I'm super excited to be a Lion. I really can't put into words what I'm actually feeling, but I'm excited. The Lion are a great team, and there will be great seasons ahead."

My take: Reiff slipped pretty far from his original projection, but he was still the second offensive lineman drafted, as expected. And he ended up in a good situation, with a young team that appears to be on the rise. Detroit has five starters on the line, so he can learn for a year before potentially taking over for Jeff Backus.

No. 26: Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois to Houston

Todd McShay video analysis here.

Quotable: “When my name was called my emotions just flooded,” Mercilus said. “I was getting a little nervous, because I thought I might go a little higher, so I was really happy when I got the call. I can’t wait to go to work with the Houston Texans. From day one I want to go prove to them that they spent their money well on me.”

My take: Mercilus is another guy who could have gone higher, but ends up on a potential playoff team. With Mario Williams gone, he has a chance to step in right away and start at defensive end. If he plays with the same high motor and intensity he did last season with the Illini, he should be an effective pass-rusher, though he'll need to bulk up a little.

No. 27: Kevin Zeitler, OG, Wisconsin to Cincinnati

Todd McShay video analysis here.

Quotable: "I had a good senior year," Zeitler said. "I tried to put everything I had on the field. Once the draft process started, I just tried to prove to coaches, off the field I take it just as seriously as on the field. I try to improve every day, any way I can. I guess it stuck."

My take: The first-round selection capped a meteoric rise for Zeitler, who was an honorable mention Big Ten performer as a junior. He blossomed into an All-American as a senior, and he rocketed up draft boards late in the process. He might not excite Bengals fans, but he's one of the safest picks of the first round, and has a clear path to starting as a rookie.

No. 30: A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois, to San Francisco

Todd McShay video analysis here.

Quotable: "I was kind of caught off guard,” Jenkins said. “It’s just a blessing that I was taken in the first round by a great organization. I think it’s a perfect match. I can’t wait to go out to San Francisco, work with a great coach in Coach Harbaugh, and go to work with some talented players. It’s a great position to be in, and a great organization.

My take: This was the stunner of the first round, from a Big Ten perspective. Jenkins wasn't being projected as a first-rounder by anybody that I saw. But we witnessed Jenkins' explosive ability during the first half of last season, when he was one of the most productive receivers in the nation before Illinois' offense dropped off a cliff. As we saw in last year's playoffs, the 49ers desperately need help at receiver, so the pick makes sense. What doesn't make much sense: the Illini had two first-round picks (at least) on their roster last season, and lost their final six regular-season games.

So that was that for the first round and the Big Ten. Some very good players from the league are left on the board, including Michigan State's Jerel Worthy, Wisconsin's Peter Konz, Penn State's Devon Still, Nebraska's Lavonte David, and on and on and on.

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