<
>

Big Ten roundtable: Which non-QB is most difficult to replace?

With more than 50 Big Ten players participating in the annual NFL scouting combine, there's no debate whatsoever that the conference is losing quite a bit of talent. But there is some question as to which player will be the most difficult to move on without.

So we decided to poll our Big Ten writers: Besides the quarterbacks, which player will be the hardest to replace this spring? Here's what they had to say:

Brian Bennett: Penn State DT Austin Johnson

This is an unconventional choice, since few would say that Johnson was the best non-quarterback in the Big Ten last year. And his teammate defensive end Carl Nassib also leaves big cleats to fill after winning several national awards. But there simply aren’t many players — or human beings, for that matter — who have the size and speed combination that Johnson brought to Penn State's interior defense. You don’t simply duplicate a 6-foot-4, 323-pound run-stuffer who also can make plays in the backfield. I could make the case that Nassib racked up his high sack totals precisely because Johnson — as well as fellow defensive tackle Anthony Zettel — required so much attention inside. Coaches will tell you that stud defensive tackles are often the hardest players to find, so it makes sense that Johnson would be incredibly difficult to replace. Penn State has some guys ready to step in at the position, with redshirt junior Parker Cothren likely next in line. But matching Johnson’s impact and production won’t be easy.

Mitch Sherman: Michigan State WR Aaron Burbridge

We removed quarterbacks from this debate, but that won’t stop me from talking about one of them. What a luxury it was in 2015 for Connor Cook to play alongside Burbridge, who set a Michigan State single-season record with 85 catches and led the Big Ten with 1,258 receiving yards. The Spartans are going to miss him as R.J. Shelton, who caught 43 passes last season, shoulders a larger load. The departure of Burbridge hurts additionally when combined with the loss of Cook. If MSU had a seasoned QB to break in a new group of receivers -- the 2015 roster included 10 freshmen and sophomores at the position group -- perhaps Michigan State could more easily navigate this transition. Instead, it figures to endure a fair amount of growing pains and rely on a strong running game while the receivers fit into their roles and develop a chemistry with Cook’s replacement.

Josh Moyer: Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Well, guys, I guess one of us has to take the obvious pick. Even if he's not the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick, there's still no denying just how much Bosa meant to the Buckeyes. The two-time All-American had the ability to take on -- and beat -- routine double- and triple-teams. According to Pro Football Focus, Bosa had 70 total pressures last season and all but six of those came unblocked. In other words, Bosa had to earn everything. He was too good to ignore, and it certainly says something when his production "dipped" -- but only one Big Ten defensive lineman (Nassib) finished with more than his 16 tackles for loss. Even though his replacement is certainly a capable one -- Sam Hubbard, who actually outpaced Bosa in sacks with 6.5 -- Bosa's value to this defense went beyond the stat sheet. Because offenses were forced to focus on him, he freed up his teammates to make plays. He was elite, and players like that just aren't replaceable.