In April’s draft, the Big Ten churned out 47 draft picks through the seven rounds. That still trailed the SEC’s 51, but it beat out every other league and topped the previous year’s total by 12.
The league also churned out a number of players who didn’t get drafted but found their way onto NFL rosters.
Here are five undrafted rookie free agents from the Big Ten with the best chances of making it with their new teams:
Josh Ferguson, RB, Illinois
Signed with the Indianapolis Colts
At 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, Josh Ferguson wasn’t going to be an every-down prospect, but he possesses a home-run ability that makes it hard to believe he wasn’t drafted somewhere on Day Three. The Colts will now try to tap it while continuing their search for the right complementary running game to Andrew Luck.
With such a pass-first approach, the Colts value running backs who are equally adept in pass protection and running their own routes, and the tough Ferguson offers plenty of ability to shake and bake away from linebackers in space. He will need to get his fumbling issue under control quickly, as that earns fringe NFL roster players a quick pink slip. If he can, there’s really no limit to how far he can climb with Frank Gore starting at 33 years old.
Tyvis Powell, S, Ohio State
Signed with the Seattle Seahawks
Tyvis Powell followed his friends on defense into the NFL, but it was likely a year early. He certainly had the size (6-3, 211 pounds) and speed to attract scouts and was projected most places as a Day Three pick, but he ultimately wasn’t developed in his aggressiveness or physicality.
Luckily for him, he’ll be headed to the franchise that might be best at lighting a fire into talented and raw players. A smart rookie like Powell should learn well from two of the best safeties in the game in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. The depth behind them is largely unproven, giving a talented player like Powell a real chance in an organization that gives almost no credence to draft stock or salary figures in building out a roster.
Jalin Marshall, WR, Ohio State
Signed with the New York Jets
Even more than Powell, Jalin Marshall could have really used another season with the Buckeyes to develop his hands and ball security and to show what he could do against press man coverage. He would have gotten that opportunity this year, and he could have been J.T. Barrett’s go-to receiver. Instead, he’ll try to make his way on a team loaded at the receiver position but in need of a return man.
It’s something Marshall offers in talent as well as any rookie in the league after more than a third of his punt returns at Ohio State went for at least 15 yards, and it’s something the Jets could use after kick returner Antonio Cromartie and punt returner Jeremy Kerley departed in the offseason. If Marshall can increase his ball security on short kicks enough to earn the job, it’ll buy him time to learn one-on-one play from Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker in hopes of a future slot role.
Jack Allen, C, Michigan State
Signed with the New Orleans Saints
The players on this list are fitting nicely into two categories — sized and underdeveloped or developed and undersized — and Jack Allen fits the latter category. A four-year starter at Michigan State, Allen is a former high-school wrestler who used his body right and played with enough mean streak to be one of the top college centers in the country.
Few offensive linemen in the NFL measure short of 300 pounds, and so Allen’s 294 pounds became the concern. At 6-foot-1, he’ll be limited in just how much mass and strength he can add, but luckily for him, he’s in the system that feels perfect for a smaller center. The Saints move up and down the field through the passing game with the best of them, and Allen’s hands and ability to drop quickly into a pass protection stance are his best attributes. He’ll use this rookie year to get stronger and learn behind two-time Pro Bowler Max Unger, who only measures 299 pounds himself. With Unger turning 30 and entering the final year of a five-year, $25.5 million deal, the cash-strapped Saints could look to Allen as the future if he’s able to show proper development this year.
Darius Latham, DT, Indiana
Signed with the Oakland Raiders
Darius Latham was probably a sure draft pick before he was arrested in March on a charge of operating a vehicle while intoxicated. That incident pushed his character concerns over the top after Latham was suspended twice and flagged eight different times while at Indiana.
NFL teams have no tolerance for bottom-of-the-roster players who create negative headlines, so Latham is truly a boom-or-bust candidate at this point. His potential is high because of his size – he’s 6-foot-4 and 311 pounds – and has the sheer upper-body strength to make it a real force to deal with inside. In Oakland, that power and versatility could be valuable for a team thin at defensive tackle that runs a hybrid between 30 and 40 fronts. All of Latham’s shortcomings seem correctable, so it will be up to him whether or not they spell his demise.