NFL teams drafted a total of 35 former Big Ten players in this year's draft. Many of those new professionals clocked in for the first of many official work days at this weekend's rookie minicamps.
Predicting which players from this year's draft class, along with the others who will join them as undrafted free agents, will succeed is tricky. We're here to take a crack at it anyway. The trio of first-round draft picks were heavy favorites among our Big Ten writers in this week's roundtable topic, which asks: Who from this year's group of Big Ten football alumni will have the most successful NFL career?
Brian Bennett: Michigan State CB Trae Waynes (Minnesota)
There is no doubt that the NFL is a passing league these days. That's why quarterbacks, receivers and, yes, cornerbacks like Waynes are such a hot commodity. Waynes got excellent training for the pros while at Michigan State, where he often was asked to defend the other team's best wideout on an island while also being physical enough to stop the run, two must-have NFL traits. Waynes also has sprinter's speed and excellent size at 6-foot-1 to be able to keep up with the freak athletes who catch passes in the pros. It remains to be seen whether Waynes can develop into a Pro Bowl type, but I absolutely expect him to have a long career in a league that will always be looking for dependable cover corners.
Josh Moyer: Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon (San Diego)
Even if we look past the fact Gordon was the most electric player in the Big Ten -- and one of the best in the nation -- it's difficult to overlook the kind of opportunity he'll have with the San Diego Chargers. With incumbent starter Ryan Mathews moving to the East Coast, Gordon should get the starting nod immediately. And that can't be said of too many other Big Ten rookies. Plus, there's already been plenty of praise heaped upon him from the NFL. Chargers GM Tom Telesco said he needed an impact player who could break games open: "[N]ow we have one." And Hall of Fame RB Marshall Faulk complimented Gordon's "impeccable" work ethic. If you followed the Big Ten, you know what kind of talent Gordon possesses. Now he's on an NFL team coming off back-to-back winning seasons with a need at running back. This pick was a no-brainer.
Dan Murphy: Penn State OT Donovan Smith (Tampa Bay)
Projecting NFL careers is difficult, but it's easy to see which Big Ten player will have the biggest opportunity to prove himself as a rookie next fall. Tampa Bay plans to start Smith at left tackle right away. He'll be in charge of protecting No. 1 pick Jameis Winston. For better or worse, Smith will catch some of the glow from Winston's spotlight. The 6-foot-6, 338-pounder started 31 games at tackle for Penn State. He went higher than expected in the draft (34th overall) and can get a jump start on a long career if he makes a strong first impression.
Mitch Sherman: Iowa OT Brandon Scherff (Washington)
The highest-drafted player from a Big Ten school since tackle Jake Long of Michigan went No. 1 overall in 2008, Scherff, by his own lofty standards, enjoyed a somewhat pedestrian senior season in 2014. Still, he won the Outland Trophy, presented to the nation's top lineman, and earned consensus All-America honors. The Washington Redskins grabbed him with the fifth overall pick, the first lineman selected in a spot usually regarded for a franchise left tackle. With Trent Williams entrenched on the quarterback's blind side, Scherff may move into the lineup at right tackle. Others project a move inside to guard. The 6-foot-5 Scherff does not possess the ideal length to play tackle, but expect him to eventually stick at the more valued spot on the line because of his sheer strength and work ethic. Whatever the fit, he's a classic match for the Redskins and a throwback to the days of the Hogs. A long, productive career awaits.