It’s no secret the Big Ten West lags behind the East division in terms of 2020 NFL draft prospects. With two Ohio State Buckeyes — Chase Young and Jeff Okudah — projected for selection in the top five picks of the 2020 NFL Draft, which begins Thursday, the talent gap between the two divisions will become even more magnified.
Still, the West division has produced its own share of impact draft picks in recent years. In 2019, two Iowa tight ends were selected in the first round. T.J. Hockenson went eighth overall to the Detroit Lions while the Denver Broncos drafted Noah Fant 12 picks later. On the first night of the draft, two more Hawkeyes could be selected remotely to play for an NFL team.
While Iowa is slated to lead the division in first round picks, there are still many other players in one of America’s most confusing divisions hoping to hear their names called this weekend. Let’s jump in and take a look at the top ten NFL draft prospects from the wild West.
1. Tristan Wirfs, OT - Iowa
In 2017, Wirfs was named honorable mention by BTN.com on the Big Ten’s all-freshman team. As a true freshman, he played right tackle and made his second collegiate start in an overtime loss against Northwestern, while fellow 2020 NFL draft prospect Joe Gaziano secured two sacks in the Wildcat victory. A few years later, Wirfs is now being compared to Los Angeles Chargers right tackle Bryan Bulaga by NFL draft expert Lance Zierlein. Wirfs’ profile as athletic translates to a right tackle that should be picked in the top 10. He’s been projected as high as number four to the New York Giants in recent mock drafts.
2. A.J. Epenesa, DE - Iowa
The junior entered the 2019 season with massive expectations. Many felt the Iowa defensive end had a chance to be chosen even higher than Hockenson, yet it appears Epenesa will have to wait a bit longer than initially thought. While the former Hawkeye finished last season with 11.5 sacks, questions linger about his instincts and speed. Zierlein compared Epenesa to Carlos Dunlap of the Cincinnati Bengals, and draft experts believe he will be off the board somewhere in the late-first, early-second round range.
3. Zack Baun, OLB - Wisconsin
Baun finished the 2019 season with 12.5 sacks, bypassing a fifth year of college for the NFL. Although Baun tested positive for a diluted urine sample at the combine, his draft stock remains steady. Like Epenesa, he should be selected either late in the first round or early in the second round. Zierlein compared the former Badger to longtime New England Patriot Kyle Van Noy, as both outside linebackers hold explosive and athletic frames that allow them to rush the passer and defend in coverage.
4. Jonathan Taylor, RB - Wisconsin
After amassing over 6,000 rushing yards in three seasons, Taylor has decided to enter the NFL draft after his junior season. Despite containing him better than most other Big Ten teams did, the Wildcats will not be sad to see him leave.
The New Jersey native is second only to Ron Dayne in all-time rushing yards in B1G history and could very well start in an NFL backfield in September. He’s likely to be picked somewhere between the end of the first round and middle portion of the second round due to the general low value placed on running backs in the draft. By most accounts, Taylor is ranked as the second or third best running back in this draft class behind D’Andre Swift from Georgia and J.K. Dobbins of Ohio State.
5. Antoine Winfield Jr., S - Minnesota
Winfield Jr. enters the 2020 NFL draft after bypassing his redshirt junior season. While the former Golden Gopher grabbed seven interceptions last season, he is known as a hard-hitting safety. His performance against Northwestern last season, which featured eleven tackles and one sack, represents his style of play. He could be chosen anywhere between the first and third round, and many draft experts believe he’s a good fit with the Chicago Bears at either of the club’s picks at 43rd or 50th overall.
6. Tyler Biadasz, C - Wisconsin
Biadasz continues the trend of Big Ten West draft entrants who left college a year early. He started all 41 games of his three-year career! He was named a freshman All-American by USA Today and two seasons later earned unanimous first-team All-America honors. The local Wisconsin product consistently helped create holes for fellow soon-to-be-drafted Jonathan Taylor. Matt Miller of Bleacher Report recently reported that Biadasz’ draft stock has taken a hit due to injury concerns. Injuries coupled with skepticism about his ability in pass production leads to Biadasz as a day two or three pick.
7. Brycen Hopkins, TE - Purdue
Since DeAngelo Yancey was selected by the Green Bay Packers in the 2017 NFL draft, Purdue’s offense has not produced an NFL draft pick. This trend will change with Brycen Hopkins in 2020. The tight end caught 61 passes last season for 830 yards along with seven touchdowns. He used his athleticism to make his primary role a pass catcher and then a blocker. Hopkins is truly a wild card; the Bears could take him with one of their two second-round picks or he could fall to later rounds. Many draft experts compare his ceiling to the likes Eric Ebron or Julius Thomas.
8. Tyler Johnson, WR - Minnesota
Two years ago, Johnson finished second in the Big Ten in receiving yards. Last season, he finished first in the conference with 1,318 yards and 13 touchdowns. Unfortunately for Johnson, NFL talent evaluators do not believe his production will translate to the pros. Experts believe he lacks top-end speed and leaping ability to become a true receiving threat. Still, with his pass-catching stats, he will have a shot to prove NFL teams wrong. In a draft ripe with wideout talent, Johnson is projected to be taken anywhere between the third and sixth rounds.
9. Lamar Jackson, CB - Nebraska
He may not be the Lamar Jackson, but this Lamar Jackson is a pretty good football player himself. The Husker finished his senior season with three interceptions and 15 passes defended. Although professional teams believe he may lack the instincts to succeed at the next level, Jackson’s unique size and length at the position make him appealing. He stands at 6-foot-3 and should be drafted somewhere between the fourth and seventh round.
10. Joe Gaziano, DE - Northwestern
Lastly, we have the GAZ! While his collegiate statistics outproduce many defensive linemen slated to be selected in front of him, NFL teams are concerned about Gaziano’s speed and explosiveness at the next level.
These same questions about Gaziano’s athletic ability also applied to other former Northwestern defensive linemen. While NFL teams were hesitant to draft Tyler Lancaster, Dean Lowry and Ifeadi Odenigbo due to concerns about their athleticism, the three late-round draft picks or undrafted free agents have already found success in the NFC North.
We can only hope his career will continue with…the Chicago Bears, who some draft sites have picking Gaziano in the sixth round.