Last year, two former Northwestern Wildcats were drafted: safety Ibraheim Campbell went to Cleveland and Trevor Siemian was taken by the Denver Broncos with the third-to-last pick in the draft but is currently the lone backup to starter Brock Osweiler as Peyton Manning is injured.
The Wildcats, however, boast few alumni in the NFL. But that could be changing somewhat soon. On the heels of a 10-2 season, Northwestern boasts a ridiculous amount of talent on defense, and there are even a couple guys on offense that could make an NFL squad. We check up on the draft stock of all the standouts, grouping the players by the year they are most likely to come out of school.
CBS Sports ranks Vitale as the second-best fullback in the upcoming draft, behind only Glenn Gronkowski, younger brother of Rob. He's rated the 189th-best player overall, given a 5th-6th round projection. Northwestern's anemic pass offense didn't help Vitale much, but he did lead the team in catches, yards and touchdowns through the air. He's a versatile player who can line up all over the formation. Dane Brugler, a senior NFL Draft analyst for CBS Sports and NFL Draft Scout, had this to say about the do-everything senior before the season started:
If he stays healthy and plays up to his potential as a senior, Vitale has the offensive versatility that will appeal to NFL teams as a toolsy chain-moving weapon.
Vitale did just that, and in an era where fullbacks are dying out as teams start to use more three- and four-wide sets and multiple tight ends, Vitale's unique skill set of blocking and catching will be very helpful as he hopes to hear his name called this April.
Unsurprisingly, Lowry's flying under the radar despite a great season that included a six tackle for loss performance against Nebraska. He's rated as the 36th best defensive end by CBS Sports, but if anyone puts on his film, you'll see a guy with a lot of power and speed to cause problems, good explosiveness off the ball, a motor that doesn't stop, and an ability to play both end and tackle. A big performance on the national stage of a bowl game would help his draft stock immensely.
Probably even more of a longshot than his fellow defensive end Lowry, Gibson is too small to play inside at 6-foot-3, 265 pounds, and he isn't the freak athlete lots of scouts look for in defensive ends. Gibson does, however, have tremendous strength and showed his gameplan-wreaking abilities against Wisconsin. Plus he has all the intangibles you could want. Nonetheless, he's rated as the 59th best DE prospect by CBS.
VanHoose, for the most part, was solid this year, but his weaknesses were exposed, as he struggled with big, athletic wideouts. (See Ball State's Jordan Williams: 8 catches, 133 yards, two touchdowns vs. Northwestern) He's a very smart corner who rarely makes glaring mistakes like he did against Purdue on the Boilermakers' first play, when he was burned on a deep pass, but he's not the quickest or most athletic guy, so he probably won't test well, and most draft sites have him off their draft boards. CBS Sports rates him the 47th best cornerback available.
For now, we'll assume no one leaves early from this year's team, which would give Northwestern a pretty strong group of returning talent. Here's a very early look at 2017 draft rankings:
He's technically considered a 2018 prospect, but given where most websites have him rated, Igwebuike could come out early. Remember after next year he would be a rising redshirt senior, meaning it would be his fifth year in Evanston, so leaving may not be out of the realm of possibility. He's rated as the fourth-best free safety in the 2018 class by both NFL Draft Scout and CBS Sports. He has ideal speed and pretty good size for a free safety, and his tackling ability has impressed this year.
The first team All-Big ten performer is in the same situation as Igwebuike. After a phenomenal season, he could choose to leave after next year, even with one year of eligibility left. NFL Draft Scout has him as the second-best inside linebacker, and his stock has risen greatly since the beginning of the year. CBS Sports rates him second, too.
Justin Jackson the ballcarrier, also listed in the 2018 class, is ranked the 25th best available running back. His performance this year certainly helps, but his lack of physical tools -- he's not a speedster nor a big back -- combined with the lack of emphasis on the running game in the pros may hurt him.
Surprisingly, Harris is almost completely off the draft radar, ranked the 45th best cornerback in the 2017 draft class by NFL Draft Scout. The oft-injured Third Team All-Big Ten performer should get his chance to shine next season, though, as VanHoose will be gone.