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Ranking the best Northwestern NFL Draft classes since the Rose Bowl

The Wildcats have had 32 players drafted over the past 21 years.

Purdue Boilermakers vs Northwestern Wildcats Photo by Jonathan Daniel/ Getty Images

Northwestern is far from an NFL prospect factory. While the Wildcats have had plenty of success on the field (at least relative to previous decades) since “arriving” in 1995, that success hasn’t translated to NFL talent.

Starting with the 1996 NFL Draft, Northwestern has had exactly 32 players taken, with only 5 of those 32 going in the first three rounds. For reference, here’s a simple look at how many players each current Big Ten team has had drafted since Northwestern made the 1996 Rose Bowl.

Number of players drafted since 1996

Ohio State Michigan Nebraska Penn State Wisconsin Iowa Michigan State Purdue Illinois Maryland Minnesota Northwestern Rutgers Indiana
Ohio State Michigan Nebraska Penn State Wisconsin Iowa Michigan State Purdue Illinois Maryland Minnesota Northwestern Rutgers Indiana
135 94 94 83 82 74 66 48 45 43 33 32 30 24

So Northwestern isn’t the worst in the Big Ten (thanks Rutgers and Indiana), but it’s solidly in that bottom tier in producing NFL talent. Now, this doesn’t portray the quality of the talent that is being sent to the NFL; those teams at the top have had plenty of busts, too (shoutout to Troy Smith), but the more players you send to the NFL, the better the chances for a star.

A team can still be successful without having a slew of NFL draftees, but it certainly makes the program look good. Northwestern doesn’t have a ton of professionals, but it still tries to sell the fact that Wildcats are playing in the NFL.

Last Thursday, Tristan Jung looked at the fact that under Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern hasn’t had a ton of success in the first two days of the draft. But enough with negativity, we’re going to holistically look at Northwestern’s last 21 years of draft classes. Seriously. This is happening.

Keep in mind that these rankings are primarily based upon the overall NFL success of the class, not how they performed while in Evanston. There were plenty of guys who were stars for the Wildcats but never saw the field in the NFL. We also can’t evaluate the 2017 draft class.

No Draftees: 1996, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2014

If you’re wondering why these years aren’t represented in the rankings, it’s because Northwestern didn’t have anybody drafted. The big drought came in the early Fitz years—Fitz has gone 5-for-11 in years with NFL picks. The fact that Northwestern had no one drafted three months after the Rose Bowl is amusing, but a few of those players were taken the next year.

13. 1998

LB Casey Dailey, 5th round, 134th overall to the New York Jets

NFL Career Stats: 6 games played

C Nathan Strikwerda, 6th round, 171st overall to the Miami Dolphins

NFL Career Stats: None

We start off with a class of two players who did not record a single stat in the NFL. Dailey left Northwestern as the school’s all time sack leader with 26 sacks, and even had head coach Bill Parcells excited about his potential during his first training camp. However, as we’ll see with many Northwestern alumni, injuries derailed his career. He had a career threatening foot injury in camp, and after missing a season was never the same. After being cut he played a season for the Chicago Enforcers of the XFL before retiring.

Strikwerda scored the highest on the Wonderlic among prospects, but was cut during training camp and never landed anywhere else. He does have this sweet IMDB page though.

12. 2000

TE Jay Tant, 5th round, 164th overall to the Arizona Cardinals

NFL Career Stats: 5 games played, 2 targets, 1 catch, 4 yards

One of the strangest things about Northwestern draft classes is that they usually contain multiple players. 2000 and 2003 are the only years in which only one Wildcats player was selected. In 2000 that lucky individual was Jay Tant. Tant was a fairly productive Tight End under Randy Walker, but what the NFL really liked him for was his size. Standing at 6-foot-3, 254 pounds, Tant was told by the NFL scouts at the Senior Bowl that he had a chance to go in the second round, but then he tore his hamstring.

Tant would still get drafted, but only spend one season in NFL, appearing in five games and catching a pass against the New Orleans Saints in a 21-10 defeat. He was then one of the last players cut from the team before the 2001 season. He would never play in the NFL again, but now works as a real estate consultant in Kentucky.

11. 2012

TE Drake Dunsmore, 7th round, 233rd overall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFL Career Stats: None

WR Jeremy Ebert, 7th round, 235th overall to the New England Patriots

NFL Career Stats: 5 games played, 8 targets, 3 catches, 18 yards

This is a rough draft for Northwestern, particularly because of how memorable both of these guys were in Evanston. Dunsmore spent his first season on the Tampa Bay practice squad before deciding to retire, and Ebert bounced around on a couple practice squads before dropping out of the NFL in 2014.

10. 2001

DB Harold Blackmon, 7th round, 210th overall to the Seattle Seahawks

NFL Career Stats: 9 games played, 3 tackles, 1 pass defense, 1 fumble recovery

DE Dwayne Missouri, 7th round, 231st overall to the Baltimore Ravens

NFL Career Stats: 2 games played

This class isn’t exactly much better than the last three, but at least both players briefly saw the field in the NFL. Blackmon played a couple seasons for the Seahawks before getting cut in 2003. Blackmon is currently the head coach of the Saint Laurence High School football team in Burbank, Illinois.

Dwayne Missouri had a special first season in the NFL, as he was featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Baltimore Ravens and was one of the players cut during show. His staring role in Hard Knocks was one preseason game where he threw up a bunch on the sidelines. He was later signed by the Dallas Cowboys and played in two games. Missouri would not play in the NFL again, but found plenty of success in the Arena Football League for the Philadephia Soul. He is now the assistant football coach and a teacher at McCollum High School in San Antonio, Texas.

9. 2003

C Austin King, 4th round, 133rd overall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFL Career Stats: 32 games played 1 game started

Austin King was a key offensive lineman while at Northwestern. King didn’t stick with the Bucs but did make his way onto the Falcons in 2004 and spent three years in Atlanta as a backup offensive lineman. He’s now the offensive line coach at Dayton University.

8. 1997

RB Darnell Autry, 4th round, 105th overall to the Chicago Bears

NFL Career Stats: 24 games played, 10 games started, 224 rushes, 653 yards, 4 TD, 33 receptions, 334 yards, 1 TD

LB Tim Scharf, 6th round, 164th overall to the New York Jets

NFL Career Stats: None

DB Hudhaifa Ismaeli, 7th round, 203rd overall to the Miami Dolphins

NFL Career Stats: None

This is an interesting class, particularly because both Autry and Ismaeli left school early to declare for the draft. Both Scharf and Ismaeli were cut in training camp and never made it onto an NFL roster, although Ismaeli did come back and finish his Northwestern degree in 2005. Scharf bounced between a few practice squads but didn’t stick. He’s now a data scientist at a Chicago based software company.

Autry’s journey is a bit more muddled. He’s the sole reason that this class is up this high, but his NFL career is weird. He played for the Bears in 1997, but then was cut before the 1998 season and picked up by the Eagles. Then he quit football. He worked odd jobs for two years, lost his Evanston condo and fell into debt before getting a second chance with the Eagles in 2000. He saw the field a decent amount due to an injury to starting running back Duce Staley, but then was cut once again right before the 2001 season. He’s still beloved in Evanston, as he was brought back as Homecoming Grand Marshal in 2015. He currently lives in Arizona and is the CEO of his own production company.

7. 2016

DE Dean Lowry, 4th round, 137th overall to the Green Bay Packers

NFL Career Stats: 15 games played, 8 tackles, 2.0 sacks

FB Dan Vitale, 6th round, 197th overall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFL Career Stats: 9 games played, 3 games started, 5 targets, 4 receptions, 27 yards

We’re jumping the gun here, but these two have already played more NFL games than a good majority of the others on the list, so they slot in here right around the middle. Lowry was a solid defensive end for the Packers last year and even recorded a sack of Russell Wilson. Vitale bounced around a bit before landing on the Cleveland Browns. Unfortunately his biggest highlight was dropping an easy touchdown. Anyway, both of these guys have seen the field in the NFL which is pretty good compared to a lot of these classes, hopefully they’ll be able to move up the ranks in the future.

6. 2015

SS Ibraheim Campbell, 4th round, 115th overall to the Cleveland Browns

NFL Career Stats: 29 games played, 8 games started, 64 tackles

QB Trevor Siemian, 7th round, 250th overall to the Denver Broncos

NFL Career Stats: 15 games played, 14 games started, 59.5% completion percentage, 3,401 yards, 18 TD, 10 INT, 57 rushing yards

The 2015 class gets this spot more or less on the merits of Siemian being a starting quarterback for an entire season (a Pro Bowl starting quarterback too). Campbell has been a solid platoon safety for the Browns as well. We’ll see what Touchdown Trevor is able to do in 2017, but this class has the opportunity to jump into the top five.

5. 1999

LB Barry Gardner, 2nd round, 35th overall to the Philadelphia Eagles

NFL Career Stats: 110 games played, 24 games started, 256 tackles, 7 passes defended, 1 INT, 6 forced fumbles

WR D’Wayne Bates, 3rd round, 71st overall to the Chicago Bears

NFL Career Stats: 47 games played, 21 games started, 80 receptions, 1,061 yards, 6 TD

RB Sean Bennett, 4th round, 112th overall to the New York Giants

NFL Career Stats: 16 games played, 2 games started, 29 rushes, 126 yards, 1 TD, 9 receptions, 64 yards

Now this is where the decisions get hard. While the other eight classes aren’t exactly anything to write home about, the top five has some legit NFL players in it, starting with Barry Gardner and D’Wayne Bates in 1999. Gardner played seven full seasons in the NFL for the Jets, Browns and Eagles. While he wasn’t exactly an All-Pro linebacker, he was still a solid NFL player. His career ended after he was cut from the Patriots in 2006. He now does a bunch of different things to help players getting ready to be drafted or enter the league. Officially, he’s the Director of Player Development & NFLPA Certified Contract Advisor at the Institute of Athletes.

Bates managed to hang around the Bears for a few season on special teams before making his way to Minnesota after the Bears waived him in 2003. Bates had his career best season in 2002 with the Vikings, but was traded to Tampa Bay following the 2003 season and promptly cut. He retired in 2005 and is currently the Athletic Director at Glenbard East High School in Lombard, Illinois.

Sean Bennett was cursed. He was seen as a speedy running back with a ton of promise, but tore his knee and missed seven games of the 1999 season. After having surgery he missed the entire 2000 season and was never the same. He was cut by the Giants after the 2001 season and later spent a few years in the CFL and Indoor Football. He is currently a sales director in New York.

4. 2010

DE Corey Wootton, 4th round, 109th overall to the Chicago Bears

NFL Career Stats: 60 games played, 22 games started, 86 tackles, 12.0 sacks, 7 passes defended, 3 forced fumbles

QB Mike Kafka, 4th round, 122nd overall to the Philadelphia Eagles

NFL Career Stats: 4 games played, 11-16, 107 yards, 2 INT

CB Sherrick McManis, 5th round, 144th overall to the Houston Texans

NFL Career Stats: 94 games played, 5 games started, 92 tackles, 1 INT, 2 passes defended, 1 forced fumble

2010 doesn’t feature any real stars, but features a couple of solid NFL contributors in Corey Wootton and Sherrick McManis. Wootton was a genuine monster in the trenches when he was healthy, but unfortunately that wasn’t that often. He was plagued with knee injuries his entire NFL career, and last saw the field in 2014. His defining moment will be driving Brett Favre into the rock hard turf at TFC Bank Stadium in Minnesota and ending his career. Wootton just retired this past year and is now pursuing a career in broadcasting.

Mike Kafka was a star quarterback at Northwestern, but never really found a place in the NFL. He was a backup in Philadelphia for a couple years before spending the next few years on different practice squads. In 2016 he came back home as a graduate assistant with the Northwestern football team and is now the Kansas City Chiefs' offensive quality control coach.

McManis is about to enter his 8th NFL season and his 6th with the Chicago Bears. He doesn’t play too much on defense, but has carved out a spot as a key special teams contributor.

3. 2002

LB Napoleon Harris, 1st round, 23rd overall to the Oakland Raiders

NFL Career Stats: 100 games played, 73 games started, 481 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 4 INT, 15 passes defended, 5 forced fumbles

LB Kevin Bentley, 4th round, 101st overall to the Cleveland Browns

NFL Career Stats: 136 games played, 37 games started, 415 tackles, 1.0 sacks, 2 INT, 9 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles

WR Sam Simmons, 5th round, 170th overall to the Miami Dolphins

NFL Career Stats: 11 games played, 8 punt returns, 3 kickoff returns

This class features two absolute beasts at linebacker. Napoleon Harris, one of Northwestern’s only ever first-round picks, and Kevin Bentley, a 10 year NFL veteran. Harris had a bit of an up and down career, playing for the Raiders, Chiefs and Vikings, but had a rookie year to remember, starting 13 regular games, both playoff games and then Super Bowl XXXVII. Harris was sent to the Vikings in the trade to the Vikings that got the Raiders Randy Moss. He had his best career year in 2007 for the Chiefs before getting cut that offseason and playing one more year for the Vikings and retiring. He’s now a Illinois state senator in the 15th district.

Bentley, surprisingly, had a longer career than Harris, playing for five teams over 10 years and making a Super Bowl appearance in 2005 with the Seahawks. After retiring from the NFL in 2012, Bentley got his MBA at Rice and now works in marketing in Atlanta.

Simmons was drafted as a return specialist on the Dolphins, but never really stuck around the NFL. He spent a couple years on the Dolphins and is now a teacher in Kansas City.

2. 2005

DE Luis Castillo, 1st round, 28th overall to the San Diego Chargers

NFL Career Stats: 82 games played, 79 games started, 210 tackles, 19.0 sacks, 2 INT, 6 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles

T Trai Essex, 3rd round, 93rd overall to the Pittsburgh Steelers

NFL Career Stats: 76 games played, 28 games started,

RB Noah Herron, 7th round, 244th overall to the Pittsburgh Steelers

NFL Career Stats: 23 games played, 85 rushing attempts, 273 rushing yards, 3 rushing TDs, 29 receptions, two receiving TDs

It was very hard to not put this as the top class in Northwestern history, especially since it has both Castillo and Essex in it. Castillo was a fantastic defensive end for the Chargers for six years, before breaking his leg one game into the 2011 season. It would prove to be a career ending injury for the former Wildcats standout and he retired in 2012. He now lives in San Diego and takes part in community outreach programs.

Essex was a solid offensive lineman for seven years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and is a two-time Super Bowl Champion. Essex made a lot of money over the years filling in for a slew of injured Steelers linemen. In 2009, he started all 16 games at right guard. He was cut in 2012 and played two games for the Colts before retiring. He is now a color commenter for ESPN3.

Herron spent most of his career with the Green Bay Packers after being signed off the Steelers practice squad, and even had a shot at the starting job in 2007 before injuring his knee and spending the season on injured reserve. He then bounced around on a couple practice squads before finally being cut by the Browns in 2009. He is now a ministry volunteer in Michigan.

1. 2006

Barry Cofield, 4th round, 124th overall to the New York Giants

NFL Career Stats: 138 games played, 129 games started, 206 tackles, 19.5 sacks, 26 passes defended, 3 forced fumbles, 1 kick blocked

Zach Strief, 7th round, 210th overall to the New Orleans Saints

NFL Career Stats: 156 games played, 92 games started, Super Bowl XLIV champion

Tim McGarigle, 7th round, 221st overall to the St. Louis Rams

NFL Career Stats: 12 games played, 6 tackles

Here it is, the best draft class in Northwestern history. Barry Cofield was a force for years at defensive tackle for the New York Giants and Washington Redskins. Cofield was a part of the defensive line that sent the New England Patriots to 18-1 in Super Bowl XLII. Cofield was cut by the Redskins in 2015 and briefly brought in by the Giants, but was cut by them in early 2016. He hasn’t officially retired yet, but he owns a sports training facility in Orlando, Florida.

Zach Strief has been one of the best right tackles in the NFL over the past five years and is still going strong on the Saints. He was named first team All-Pro by Pro Football Focus in 2013, and is heading into his 12th NFL season in 2017.

McGarigle is the odd man out here, as he spent the 2006 season on the Rams practice squad before playing 12 games in 2007. He was then cut during training camp in 2008 and would not return to the NFL. He played a couple season for the Florida Tuskers of the UFL under head coach Jay Gruden before coming back to Northwestern as a graduate assistant in 2011. He is now a linebackers’ coach with the Green Bay Packers.

The combination of Cofield and Strief is what puts this class over the top. Two longtime NFL starters in the same class is incredibly rare for Northwestern, and they are both good.

Now that we’ve looked at all the players Northwestern has had drafted since 1996, one thing stands out: It’s really hard to stick around in the NFL. Most, if not all, of these guys were stars at Northwestern, but many of them didn’t even see the field once in the NFL. It’s a complete crapshoot, and it’s incredible that Northwestern even had this many successful draft classes. Here’s hoping the 2017 class is as successful as the 2006 class was.