The 2017 NFL Draft starts Thursday in Philadelphia and is sure to feature many Big Ten stars finding out where their professional careers will begin. Programs such as Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska are among the top schools in the nation at producing NFL talent. Which players have been the best NFL draft picks from those schools?
Penn State has had the fifth-most players reach the NFL, but that total (378) is only good for third in the Big Ten behind Ohio State and Michigan. The Nittany Lions should add a few more during the 2017 NFL season, but watch out in 2018 and beyond. James Franklin has recruited well, and Penn State could have a lot of future NFL players on the 2017 roster.
The players who made Penn State “Linebacker U” are well represented on this list. Three players on the list were linebackers in State College, and a fourth moved from defensive end to linebacker after reaching the NFL.
Here are the 10 best picks in the history of the NFL draft from Penn State, based on a combination of career accomplishments and when they were selected.
10. Lydell Mitchell, Baltimore Colts, (No. 48, 1972)
The Nittany Lions have had several high-profile NFL busts at running back in the past 25 years. While Blair Thomas, Curtis Enis and Ki-Jana Carter did not work out, several of Penn State’s long line of productive backs have done well at the next level.
Larry Johnson and Curt Warner both spent time, albeit brief, as elite NFL backs. Lydell Mitchell made the Pro Bowl three times. He rushed for more than 1,700 yards from scrimmage in each of those seasons.
9. Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs (No. 20, 2006)
Tamba Hali was a great story before he became a star at Penn State, coming to the United States from war-torn Liberia as a kid. He was a key member of the 2005 team that went 12-1 and finished the season at No. 3 in the nation.
He had 8 sacks and 5 forced fumbles as a rookie for the Chiefs, and eventually earned five consecutive Pro Bowl selections (2011-15).
8. Marco Rivera, Green Bay Packers (No. 208, 1996)
Marco Rivera became a mainstay on the Packers offensive line during the Brett Favre era. He made the Pro Bowl three straight seasons (2002-04) and started 141 of 144 games from 1997-2006. That’s pretty great value from someone outside the top 200 picks.
7. Matt Millen, Oakland Raiders (No. 43, 1980)
Matt Millen stepped in and started every game as a rookie, winning a Super Bowl with the Oakland Raiders that season. He won three more titles: after the 1983 season with the Los Angeles Raiders, after the 1989 season with San Francisco and after the 1991 season with the Washington Redskins, which was his final season.
He was maligned for some of his work as a general manager, but starting 12 seasons and 166 games after being a second-round pick is a great selection. Millen is also the best NFL player from Whitehall High School in Pennsylvania … for now, at least. Saquon Barkley might change that one day.
6. Lenny Moore, Baltimore Colts (No. 9, 1956)
Lenny Moore had the NFL career that people expected from Reggie Bush. He was an outstanding runner and receiver. He finished with more than 5,000 rushing yards and 6,000 receiving.
A seven-time Pro Bowl selection, Moore led the league in touchdowns twice and finished in the top six in receptions for four straight seasons. He won NFL titles with the Colts in 1958 and 1959, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975.
5. Navorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers (No. 91, 2010)
There are only three Penn State players with more first-team All-Pro seasons than Navorro Bowman, who has four. One of those three played before World War II.
Bowman, a linebacker, has had a unique NFL career. He’s had six seasons since his rookie year. Four of them were first-team All-Pro campaigns. The other two were derailed by major injuries. He sustained a torn achilles’ tendon last season and torn knee ligaments in 2014.
If he can return to All-Pro level form, and if the injuries haven’t already shortened the final length of his career, Bowman is going to have a chance to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
4. Mike Munchak, Houston Oilers (No. 8, 1982)
Taking a guard in the top 10 picks of a draft can be a risky play. It often isn’t a high-priority position at the draft, but Mike Munchak provided a worthy return on investment and then some.
Munchak made the Pro Bowl nine times, and was a first- or second-team All-Pro 10 times. He coached in the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans organization for nearly two decades as well, and was a candidate for the Penn State job that eventually went to James Franklin.
3. Franco Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 13, 1972)
Harris didn’t reach 700 yards in any of his seasons at Penn State because he was in a backfield with Mitchell. He had eight 1,000-yard seasons with the Steelers, and retired less than 200 yards shy of the career record held by Jim Brown at the time.
Besides scoring a touchdown on one of the most famous plays in NFL history, the Immaculate Reception, Harris part of four Pittsburgh Steelers teams to win the Super Bowl. He was the MVP in Super Bowl IX.
2. Steve Wisniewski, Dallas Cowboys (No. 29, 1989)
Jimmy Johnson loved to wheel and deal draft picks, but this is one trade that didn’t go in his favor. Dallas drafted Steve Wisniewski and flipped him to the Oakland Raiders for the No. 39 pick, which became fullback Daryl Johnston.
“Moose” became one of the best fullbacks in the NFL, but Wisniewski went to the Pro Bowl eight times. Dallas had a fantastic offensive line during the Troy Aikman/Emmitt Smith era, but imagine that group with Wisniewski, as well.
A member of the 1990s all-decade team, Wisniewski’s chances to make the Hall of Fame have probably passed. He’d be an easy choice for the Hall of Great But Not Quite Fame.
1. Jack Ham, Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 34, 1971)
The best linebacker in Penn State history is a fun debate. The best NFL linebacker from Penn State is not much of one. Jack Ham was one of the centerpieces of Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain” defense.
He was named to the Pro Bowl eight times and earned six first-team All-Pro nods. Ham helped the Steelers win the Super Bowl four times in six years, and the best edition of that vaunted defense probably played one of the two seasons Pittsburgh did not win.