Five Big Ten programs have an argument to make the College Football Playoff, and that height of potential excellence doesn’t come without terrific players.
The conference boasts one standout, Nick Bosa, who many consider to be the No. 1 NFL draft prospect in the 2019 class. But he’s simply one of several elite defensive players in the Big Ten; the league is stacked with top-shelf talent.
Although the NFL will come calling for these athletes, their professional outlooks are simply mentioned. The order is based on previous production and 2018 expectations.
Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins is among the new starters who could merit a place on the list eventually, but that group has minimal experience entering the year.
15. Tyler Biadasz, center, Wisconsin
Wisconsin wanted Tyler Biadasz on the field badly enough in 2017 that Michael Deiter shifted out to left tackle. The decision paid off both the Badgers and Biadasz, who started all 14 games at center. He earned third-team All-Big Ten and first-team Freshman All-America honors. Since all five offensive linemen are back this season, Wisconsin’s running game should be stellar. Biadasz is only a redshirt sophomore, yet he’s already established himself as a dominant run blocker and the potential No. 1 center in an upcoming draft class.
14. Anthony Nelson, defensive end, Iowa
Iowa is rebuilding at linebacker, but the group of new starters will have plenty of support from the defensive line. Anthony Nelson, in particular, excels at getting to the quarterback. Last season, per Pro Football Focus, he racked up 55 total pressures. Nelson finished the campaign with 41 tackles, 9.5 takedowns for loss and 7.5 sacks. The third-team All-Big Ten end broke up four passes and forced two fumbles, too. A.J. Epenesa is a rising star on the Hawkeyes’ defense, but Nelson will be the leader of Iowa’s defensive line for another year.
13. Khaleke Hudson, viper, Michigan
When the Wolverines wanted a way to best utilize Jabrill Peppers’ versatility, they broke out the Viper position. That hybrid safety/linebacker spot has also been an ideal fit for Khaleke Hudson. In 2017, he notched the third-most tackles (82) on the team, including 18 tackles for loss and eight sacks. According to CFB Film Room, Hudson added 11 more quarterback pressures and surrendered only nine completions for 83 yards on 23 targets. Whether attacking the backfield or dropping in coverage, Hudson is a steady contributor for Michigan.
12. David Edwards, right tackle, Wisconsin
Quarterbacks usually don’t dream of playing on the offensive line. Nevertheless, David Edwards took snaps in high school but has developed into one of the country’s best right tackles at Wisconsin. Over the last two seasons, he’s started 21 games at the position. In 2017, he was a third-team AP All-American alongside teammate Beau Benzschawel. Since the Badgers have a left-handed quarterback in Alex Hornibrook, Edwards is also the blindside protector. That increased level of responsibility is suited for a player of his caliber.
11. Joe Bachie, linebacker, Michigan State
Michigan State is loaded with experience on both sides of the football, and its defense is led by Joe Bachie. As a sophomore, the middle linebacker collected a team-best 100 tackles and posted 8.5 stops for loss. He chipped in 3.5 sacks, three interceptions and forced two fumbles, as well. Partly thanks to Bachie’s impact, Michigan State finished as the No. 2 run defense in the country. Given that most of the defense is back, expectations are high for the Spartans in 2018. It helps to have such a reliable presence in the middle of the field.
10. Chase Winovich, defensive end, Michigan
Not only does Chase Winovich consistently disrupt on passing downs, he’s a major contributor against the run. Of his 79 tackles — the most among Big Ten defensive linemen in 2017 — 18.5 happened in the backfield and 10.5 were non-sacks. Running toward his side can be a futile effort. But, yes, the rising senior is terrific at flustering the quarterback, too. Winovich tallied 56 total pressures last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Plus, he had 5.5 sacks as a backup in 2016. Winovich, put simply, is a nightmare to block in any situation.
9. Brian Lewerke, quarterback, Michigan State
Shea Patterson is the most popular quarterback in the state of Michigan. However, the most proven signal-caller is found at Michigan State, which returns a 10-game winner in Brian Lewerke. Last year, the dual-threat quarterback threw for 2,793 yards and 20 touchdowns to only seven interceptions. He scampered for 559 yards and five more scores, helping the Spartans bounce back from a 3-9 campaign while pulling off a major upset over Penn State. Lewerke isn’t a household name, but he’s quietly positioned MSU to be a contender in the Big Ten.
8. Paddy Fisher, linebacker, Northwestern
After taking a redshirt in 2016, Paddy Fisher wasted little time asserting himself as a run-stopping anchor in the middle. Among returning draft-eligible linebackers, nobody was more efficient than him. Pro Football Focus credited Fisher with a 15.8 run-stop percentage, and he paced the Wildcats with 18 stuffs (tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage), per Football Study Hall. Fisher registered 113 tackles with nine for loss, also forcing four fumbles. The sophomore will be the cornerstone of Northwestern’s stingy defense in 2018.
7. Devin Bush Jr., linebacker, Michigan
Listed at 5-foot-11, Devin Bush Jr. doesn’t possess ideal size for a linebacker. His speed, recognition and physicality certainly pass the test, though. During his first season as a starter, Bush amassed a team-high 102 tackles with 9.5 behind the line of scrimmage. He totaled five sacks, eight pass breakups and one interception, drawing national attention as a third-team AP All-America selection. Bush also only missed five tackles during the entire year, according to CFB Film Room. That’s an exceptional level of production and efficiency.
6. J.K. Dobbins, running back, Ohio State
NFL scouts are surely keeping a close eye on J.K. Dobbins, but he’s not a draft-eligible player until after 2019. In the meantime, the sophomore will continue being a star for Ohio State. He started the 2017 opener while Mike Weber dealt with injury yet quickly entrenched himself as the No. 1 back. Dobbins piled up 181 yards in his college debut, ultimately rushing for 1,403 yards and seven touchdowns on the season. They’ll split the workload again this fall, but Dobbins will be the featured runner for a playoff-caliber Buckeyes team.
5. Jonathan Taylor, running back, Wisconsin
As a freshman, Jonathan Taylor quickly ascended from backup to Heisman Trophy hopeful. He crested the 200-yard mark in three games and reached triple digits in seven others. Taylor wrapped up his first college season with 1,977 rushing yards — which ranked third nationally — and 13 touchdowns. In addition to first-team All-Big Ten honors, he landed on second-team AP-All America. Wisconsin’s seasoned offensive line should create massive running lanes for Taylor and keep the sophomore in the Heisman conversation all year long.
4. Trace McSorley, quarterback, Penn State
We’re about to find out exactly how good Trace McSorley is. Over the last two seasons, he’s accumulated more than 8,000 yards of total offense and accounted for 75 touchdowns. With or without Saquon Barkley, those numbers are excellent. But in 2018, McSorley won’t have Barkley, DaeSean Hamilton or Mike Gesicki. While it would be wrong to say the senior quarterback is a product of his environment, McSorley is suddenly the undisputed leader of the offense. If he thrives, Penn State could win its second Big Ten title in three years.
3. Rashan Gary, defensive end, Michigan
Winovich will hold down one side of Michigan’s defensive line, and Rashan Gary will line up on the opposite. That’s quite a one-two punch for the Wolverines. As a sophomore, Gary posted 66 tackles with 12 stops for loss and six sacks. Pro Football Focus credited him with 50 total pressures on the quarterback, and he earned a first-team All-Big Ten spot. Heading into 2018, Gary is considered one of the premier draft prospects in the nation. He’ll likely pursue the NFL after this season, and the only big question is whether he’ll have earned an All-American nod first.
2. T.J. Edwards, linebacker, Wisconsin
Since 2015, T.J. Edwards has tallied 80-plus tackles each season. He led Wisconsin in that category as a freshman and sophomore then finished second last year. However, his value extends far beyond the most popular stat. Edwards has recorded 26 career tackles for loss, grabbed seven interceptions and broken up 13 passes. In 2017, per Pro Football Focus, he paced Big Ten linebackers with a 38.4 passer rating allowed. Despite having an only decent physical skill set, Edwards performs at an exceptionally high level because of his outstanding awareness and discipline.
1. Nick Bosa, defensive end, Ohio State
The hype is warranted. Nick Bosa is a certain first-round pick, barring catastrophic injury, and likely top-five choice. Bosa — who is farther along in his development than his NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year brother Joey, according to Joey — has gathered 63 tackles with 23 for loss and 13.5 sacks in two seasons at Ohio State. Bosa’s 66 pressures ranked second nationally in 2017, per Pro Football Focus. Opponents often devote extra blockers to Bosa, yet he still finds a way to constantly disrupt. That’s the mark of an elite defensive end.