IOWA CITY, Iowa — When NFL draft season commences, most of the cottage industry experts focus on first-round prospects and use buzzwords and phrases like “stiff hips,” “fluid” and “clean off the field.”
A few legitimate draft analysts use those words and then they’re repeated on various blogs until the three-day NFL draft festival concludes in late April. People who follow the NFL draft process end up knowing the top picks better than many already playing and certainly more than the lower-round prospects.
In Big Ten country, there are plenty of former players who are overlooked and will contribute at the next level. Some of them will get drafted, others will sign as priority free agents after the draft. Here are five projected undrafted free agents who need more attention in the draft process and have a shot at not only making a team but also helping a team win.
Ben Niemann, LB, Iowa
It’s difficult to imagine such a productive, experienced, versatile linebacker who started in 28 victories over three seasons would be on the outskirts of the seven-round draft, but that’s where Iowa outside linebacker Ben Niemann finds himself.
Niemann, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 235 pounds, has everything a team would want. He started 40 games at Iowa and played both inside the box and in space. He finished his career with 201 tackles — 15.5 for loss — plus blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown. He defended 12 passes with 2 interceptions.
He has enough speed and quickness to play on the edge and cover tight ends or running backs. His three-cone time of 6.84 seconds would have ranked third at the NFL combine among outside linebackers. His 40-yard dash time of 4.6 seconds would have finished 10th at the combine, and his vertical jump of 33.5 inches would have ranked 12th. Niemann also has a frame and enough strength to shift inside in a 3-4.
Perhaps Niemann won’t become an immediate starter, but he’s got enough versatility to play in any sub-package and on every special team. If you couple his skill set with his character, he’s a guy every team should pick.
Pro comparison: OLB Hunter Hillenmeyer
Steven Richardson, DT, Minnesota
Along the line of scrimmage, any coach will tell you that low pad wins. In college football, no one could get lower than Minnesota defensive tackle Steven Richardson. Rarely could an offensive lineman drive him off the ball.
At 5-foot-11 and 292 pounds, Richardson was nicknamed ‘The Stove’ with the Golden Gophers. He was almost impossible to move. It’s unfortunate he played with a team that finished 5-7 overall and 2-7 in Big Ten play. Richardson received only Big Ten honorable mention honors, but he certainly made an impact on his opponents.
“He was the hardest person I blocked [in 2016],” said Iowa center James Daniels, a likely first-round pick later this month. “He’s even better this year.
“Because he’s short, he can do more than just bull [rush]. He can push, pull, rip. He has a lot of moves and that makes him hard to block. He’s really quick.”
Richardson was double-teamed on nearly every play but still generated 12.5 sacks and 29 tackles for loss in his career. He also forced 5 fumbles and recovered 4. At Minnesota’s pro day, Richardson bench-pressed 225 pounds 31 times.
Pro comparison: DT Mike Daniels
Ja’Whaun Bentley, ILB, Purdue
Somebody had to spearhead Purdue’s incredible defensive turnaround, and middle linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley was perhaps the most instrumental player in helping the Boilermakers reach — and win — a bowl game.
On defense, Purdue chopped its points per game allowed from 38.3 to 20.5, rushing yards from 238.4 to 132.9, yards per carry from 5.25 to 3.53 and rushing touchdowns from 35 to 10. There’s plenty of other impressive statistics and Bentley (6-foot-3, 247 pounds) was crucial to all of them. He led the Boilermakers with 97 tackles, including 11.5 for loss. He intercepted a pass and returned it 76 yards for a score against Minnesota. In his final game, Bentley was named the Foster Farms Bowl Defensive Most Valuable Player after finishing with 8 tackles, 2 for loss.
Bentley is a physical hitter and boasts quality intangibles. He started for four years and was a captain for three. Twice he represented Purdue at Big Ten media day. When Purdue was bad, Bentley stood out as a solid performer. When the Boilermakers were good, Bentley was terrific.
At his pro day, Bentley bench-pressed 225 pounds 31 times and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.76 seconds. It’s surprising he hasn’t received any draft buzz, but he’ll make some team very happy this fall.
Pro comparison: Vontaze Burfict
Chris Jones, CB, Nebraska
Nebraska cornerback Chris Jones was an ascending Big Ten player after the 2016 season when he earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors. Instead, Jones suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee and had surgery in July.
Jones returned late in the season but had little impact. Certainly not like he did as a junior, when he had 3 interceptions — including one for a score — and 37 tackles. He had 2 interceptions as a sophomore with 25 tackles.
Now Jones is relegated to the afterthought pool as if he forgot how to play football. But Jones has the perfect frame to play corner in the NFL. He’s 6-feet and 200 pounds, has long arms and big hands. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.57 seconds. Jones has a knack for deflecting footballs with 10 pass breakups in 2016. He also can hit.
In a passing league, Jones has the skills, physical gifts and temperament to play cornerback or safety. If he wasn’t injured last summer, it’s likely Jones would be discussed as at least a mid-round pick.
Pro comparison: Chris McAlister
Boone Myers, OL, Iowa
Iowa tackle Boone Myers (6-foot-4½, 309 pounds) was robbed of his best chance to impress pro football scouts by a nasty high-ankle sprain in training camp. Myers took some lumps as a sophomore in replacing Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff at left tackle, but battled throughout his career to gain respectability. Last fall was his opportunity to impress scouts and put together a dominating season. Unfortunately, he couldn’t do so on one leg.
By late in his 2016 season, Myers was one of the most physical, nasty blockers in the Big Ten. He was slated to open at left tackle for Iowa as a senior. With the ankle injury, Myers tried to work back into the fold. He couldn’t effectively block edge rushers so moved inside for three starts at left guard. His ankle never improved so he opted for surgery.
At Iowa, left tackle carries an incredible tradition. Regular starters before Myers were Robert Gallery, Marshal Yanda, Bryan Bulaga, Riley Reiff and Scherff. That group includes four first-round picks and the NFL’s best guard over the last decade in Yanda. Myers may not have their skills, but he matches their toughness and is at least an NFL-caliber guard. It’s a surprise nobody sees that in the weeks before the draft.
Pro comparison: Jack Mewhort