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How having two first round picks in 2021 shows the rise of Northwestern football

Northwestern is just days away from accomplishing something it’s never done before in program history.

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NCAA Football: Northwestern at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Before their game against Wisconsin, they were the Fighting Rece Davises, per ESPN’s Joey Galloway. Smart, capable and well-coached, but not possessing the traits needed to keep up with the Badgers and their “top-tier” talent.

After a Big Ten Championship loss to Ohio State, it was all about Justin Fields and his inability to process reads with the required speed (an idiotic narrative that has now been proven false on multiple occasions), not about a Northwestern team being better than what everyone outside of Evanston had given them credit for.

Even prior to the Citrus Bowl vs Auburn, the Tigers and their “SEC speed” were counted on to simply outrun a ‘Cats squad that had been better the entire season.

No matter what point of the season they found themselves at, NU was downgraded as a team defying the odds in spite of their low level talent. All this despite the fact that they’re one of only two Big Ten teams that’ll have two first-round selections come out of their program come Thursday when the NFL Draft begins.

Looking through the predicted mock drafts on a wide number of outlets such as The Draft Network, ESPN, The Ringer, Pro Football Focus and CBS Sports, both Rashawn Slater and Greg Newsome are all but guaranteed hear their names called as one of the first 32 picks.

Now, it’s possible that Newsome falls out of the first round if his medical reports don’t turn out how most teams want them, as the cornerback missed several games throughout his collegiate career due to injury. Even without those medical red flags, The Ringer’s Danny Kelly had him going as low as 30 to the Buffalo Bills. However, Newsome is still thought of incredibly highly by most pundits and teams, and could just as likely end up with the Las Vegas Raiders at 17 according to PFF’s latest mock. All in all, it’s pretty safe to claim that NU will have two first round picks in the NFL Draft for the first time in program history.

Compare this to the rest of their competition in the Big Ten, and Northwestern stands above their peers. Michigan’s defensive lineman Kwity Paye is a projected mid-round selection, but no other UM player is scratching the top 32 save for a meteoric rise from offensive lineman Jaylen Mayfield. Same for Rashod Bateman out of Minnesota, who is for the most part the consensus WR4 in this class, but will likely be the lone first round Gopher with teammate Benjamin St-Juste being a likely day two pick.

Continuing on, everyone knows that Ohio State’s Justin Fields will be drafted, but in very un-Buckeye like fashion, he’s the only OSU player projected for the first round. There’s a plethora of second and third round prospects out of Columbus (Baron Browning, Pete Werner, Wyatt Davis, Tommy Togiai, Shaun Wade, Josh Meyers), but short of a team betting on Browning’s outlier athleticism at the linebacker position in picks ranging from 27 to 32, they’re probably not climbing up the boards.

There is but one Big Ten team in company with NU to have multiple first roundesr — Penn State. Similar to Slater, linebacker Micah Parsons opted out of the season due to COVID concerns as well as his preparation for the draft, and will assuredly be selected in the top 20. Additionally, Nittany Lions’ defensive end Jayson Oweh has garnered the excitement of many a front office with his bonkers pro day numbers — a 4.36 40-yard dash while weighing in at 257 pounds, 34.5-inch arms, a 39.5-inch vertical and a broad jump of 11 feet and 2 inches. In one word — wow.

However, Oweh is still only a fringe first rounder due to his lack of production on the field, and “lack of” is putting it nicely. He had exactly zero sacks in seven games played during the past season, precisely 0.5 fewer than Northwestern’s Cameron Mitchell — a defensive back. Sacks aren’t the only define a good pass rusher, but they sure are important.

Penn State could threaten to surpass NU for the conference-lead in first round selections should an NFL team fall in love with tight end Pat Freiermuth (cough cough, the Jacksonville Jaguars, cough), but he is more likely a day two pick, as most non-Kyle Pitts tight ends are.

So what does all this mean? Just ask Pat Fitzgerald.

“To have two first-rounders shows every prospect in country that you can come to Northwestern and you can have it all,” said Fitzgerald. While some could brush away Fitz’s comment as coach-speak that doesn’t equate to much in the grand scheme of things, I think it’s significant because saying that prospects can now have it all somewhat implies in the past that they could not have it all. That Northwestern was a place of great academic stature but was not a stepping stone on the path toward NFL stardom.

Just scroll through lists the of NFL’s most recent drafts and this becomes more apparent. When Slater’s name flashes across big screen this Thursday, he’ll be the first Wildcat selected in the first round since defensive Luis Castillo was taken 28th overall by the San Diego Chargers in 2005. Aside from Castillo, the only other 21st century athlete to transition from the NU football star to NFL first-rounder was Napoleon Harris, who got taken by the Oakland Raiders with the 23rd pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.

In the past 20 years of Big Ten football, only Indiana has had fewer first round picks than the ‘Cats (though if one excludes the non-B1G years of both Maryland and Nebraska, they too would fall behind the ‘Cats).

B1G First Round Picks Since 2000

Draft Year Ohio State Penn State Michigan Michigan State Indiana Rutgers Maryland Wisconsin Iowa Purdue Illinois Minnesota Nebraska Northwestern
Draft Year Ohio State Penn State Michigan Michigan State Indiana Rutgers Maryland Wisconsin Iowa Purdue Illinois Minnesota Nebraska Northwestern
2020 3 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0
2019 2 0 2 0 0 0 1 0 2 0 0 0 0 0
2018 2 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2017 3 0 2 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0
2016 5 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2015 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0
2014 2 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2013 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 2 0 0 0
2011 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 1 1 1 0 1 0
2010 0 0 1 0 0 2 0 0 1 0 0 0 1 0
2009 2 1 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 0
2008 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0
2007 2 1 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 1 0 0 1 0
2006 4 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 1 0 0 1 0 0
2005 0 0 2 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 1 1
2004 3 0 1 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0
2003 0 4 0 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0
2002 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 1
2001 2 0 3 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 1 0 0
2000 1 2 0 2 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0
TOTAL 33 10 15 7 0 3 5 15 10 3 5 2 4 2

In total, Ohio State leads the conference by a mile in years having had multiple first round selections, sending more than one student-athlete to the pro’s on day one a whopping 11 times in the past 21 drafts. Following them, both Michigan and Wisconsin have produced four draft classes of such caliber in the same timespan, Penn State has had two and Michigan State, Iowa, Illinois and Rutgers (yes, Rutgers) have done the same at least one time. Twenty-one drafts, 25 occasions of one team having multiple first round picks in the same class and none of them have come out of Evanston.

Until now.

And sure, one could dismiss all of this with the obvious caveat that Rashawn Slater did not dawn the purple and white during the 2020 season. That would make sense if this article was being written in the midst of past season of play, arguing that NU has the talent to compete with the best of the Midwest. Rather, this is being written to display how a monumental shift could be on the horizon. The program is quite literally days away from accomplishing something they’ve never done before. It’s an achievement that often separates the top dogs of the Big Ten from the rest as seen in the table above.

One could also argue that this is a blip that will be remembered fondly, but ultimately lead to no meaningful change. However, while perhaps having two first rounders in the same class might not be in the immediate future, I see two current Wildcats who have a more than decent shot at turning into top round picks — Brandon Joseph and Peter Skoronski.

Fans would understandably be sad to see the first-year, 2020 First Team All-American safety leave for the NFL following his redshirt sophomore campaign, but given how Joseph dominated with literally zero prior collegiate experience, it’s safe to assume he’ll be pretty great again in 2021. And come draft day 2023, who’s to say that Skoronski — PFF’s highest graded true freshman in the entire Big Ten — won’t be a prospect coveted by many?

According to the Pro Football Reference, Northwestern has only had eight first round picks in its history. Some turned into all-out legends at the next level (Chris Hinton, Otto Graham), others solidfied themselves as dependable rotation pieces in the NFL (Ron Burton, Cas Banaszek) and a couple flamed out of the league relatively quickly (Fate Echols, Vic Schwall). None were emerging from a football program built on consistent success, and thus were not capable of building toward a greater pool of talent.

That’s not the case with Newsome and Slater. They were the two most outstanding talents in this era of NU football, but they were far from the alone in possessing gridiron greatness.

Fitzgerald’s remarkable tenure as head coach of Northwestern has been a constant build, climbing from plucky underdog to a legitimate, yearly contender for the division crown. Recruiting and developing two first round draft picks in the same year is something that only the best programs in the Big Ten can often say, and that’s exactly what the ‘Cats are about to do this Thursday.