Last season was a down year for Nebraska on the field, finishing 6-7 in Mike Riley’s first season as coach. Correspondingly, it was the first time in three years that the Cornhuskers failed to pump out a player in the first two rounds of the NFL draft — although they did produce four selections, good for fourth in the Big Ten.
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.
This is the sixth part of a series that takes a look at the Big Ten’s draft picks and how they might fit in early on with their NFL teams.
Today, we continue with the Cornhuskers:
Round 3, Pick 4: Maliek Collins, DT, Dallas Cowboys — After the Cowboys ignored an ailing pass rush in the first two rounds of the draft, they tabbed the 6-foot-2, 311-pound Collins to try to solve the issue. Pass rushers had been dropping like flies for Dallas in the weeks leading up to the draft, with suspensions coming to projected starting ends Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence, and then bad luck struck again. Collins broke his foot, knocking him out of action for what should be most of training camp. It’s a tough blow for an enormous player who possesses the rare inside burst that could help soften the blow of what’s happened to Dallas’ ends. Collins needs to add strength to boost his penetration and to develop as a run-stuffer, and the injury will hurt some of his production in that area as well. When he returns, he’ll likely have a rotational role to step into because of Dallas’ need at the position and desire to win now, but it could be a difficult rookie year.
Round 3, Pick 34: Vincent Valentine, DT, New England Patriots — A Nebraska program that’s gotten great at producing defensive tackle talent turned out two in the third round this season. Valentine, however, was a major surprise. He was projected in most places as a seventh-round pick at best, but the Patriots reached for what they saw as a future replacement in the middle for longtime cog Vince Wilfork, who departed after New England won the Super Bowl in 2015. Veteran Terrance Knighton will hold the spot down this year, and as a seventh-year starter in the league, he’ll be a good one for the 329-pound Valentine to look up to. But the 30-year-old Knighton, a 325-pounder, is only on a one-year deal and has slowed in recent years, leading to his departure from the Redskins this past offseason. So Valentine has a future position to work into, but he might have a lot to clean up before he can even think about becoming a starter. He struggled through a high ankle sprain last season, and before that he was criticized for a lack of conditioning and practice habits, which led to questionable effort on the field. The Patriots are among the best at getting the most out of talented but lacking players, and they’ll hope to do so again here.
Round 4, Pick 32: Alex Lewis, OT, Baltimore Ravens — Entering the draft, Lewis was seen as a player loaded with the rare length (6-foot-6) and frame (312 pounds) that portend so well to tackle play in the NFL, but one who lacks the current abilities in that body to do enough with it. It made him a project, and Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome eats up projects sometimes. Lewis needs to add foot speed and strength, which is a difficult combination, but the Ravens will try it because they need a long-term starter on the right side opposite their first-round pick, Notre Dame offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley. They released former tackle Eugene Monroe from a gaudy contract this offseason, clearing the way for Ricky Wagner to hold the job in the short-term and, they hope, for Lewis to step in when the time is right.
Round 6, Pick 1: Andy Janovich, FB, Denver Broncos — It’s a rare sight to see fullbacks drafted in today’s spread-out NFL, but Janovich’s versatility helped him do it. Last season at Nebraska, he totaled 265 yards and three scores on the ground and added 13 special-teams tackles. He’s capable enough as a blocker and a receiver to receive consideration in a number of areas. Broncos coach Gary Kubiak loves to run the ball with multiple heads and adores his tight ends, so there’s some excitement about how he could use Janovich. The 238-pound fullback’s development as a lead blocker will likely determine just how much he can get on the field for the defending Super Bowl champions.