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Column: This week’s NFL Draft looms large for the Buckeyes: Past, present, and future

Some thoughts on the draft, recruiting, and the transfer portal.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Michigan State at Ohio State
Sure first rounders Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave celebrate a TD against Michigan State
Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the popularity of the transfer portal and the increasing importance of NIL (name, image, likeness) opportunities to recruits and players, the jobs of big-time college coaches just get more complicated. It’s not “just” recruiting and coaching anymore; as the role of money in the college game increases, meeting players’ expectations gets harder and harder.

Earlier this week, I read an interview with Nick Saban. Ostensibly, Saban was speaking about the transfer portal, about the impatience that a lot of blue-chip players have about their playing time. He remarked candidly that many of his top players at Alabama didn’t start as freshmen, didn’t start as sophomores, and really had only one year as a solid, first-string player before declaring for the NFL draft. Player development, according to Saban, is what Bama has to offer. The quality of coaching, the quality of the guy opposite you in practice, day in and day out. You can’t help but get better – if you’re patient.

If you’re accustomed to loud applause and grand accolades, it’s tough to sit on the bench and wait for a turn that may or may not come. Scholarship football players at Bama or at Ohio State were the best players on their high school teams, maybe the best players in the history of their high schools. It’s tough to sit. It’s understandable that they would turn to the other schools that recruited them, that begged them to come, and see if the offer is still good. And yet, every year that goes by, every transfer, likely pushes the starting role further back. For every Jameson Williams or Joe Burrow or Justin Fields, who flourished after transferring, there are 50 guys who didn’t. Patience.

To punctuate his point that it was worthwhile for players to bide their time, Saban boasted of the NFL statistics for Alabama players since his arrival in 2007. 106 members of the Crimson Tide were drafted by NFL teams; if we count the 2007 draft (and we probably shouldn’t), that’s about seven players taken each year. Saban claimed that those players had earned $1.7 billion playing pro football. Wait your turn, then take your share of the money.

Curious, I looked up the Buckeyes’ success in the NFL draft from that same year, 2007. Exactly 100 Bucks were selected by NFL teams (24 in the first round). A bit fewer than Bama, but very close. If we look only at the Urban Meyer, Ryan Day era (2013 NFL draft and later), we see that 69 OSU players were drafted – 7.67 players per year on average. Better than Saban and Bama. (By the way, figuring out how much money all those Buckeyes made since 2007 is beyond me.)

A guy like Kyle McCord, for instance, or even Julian Fleming, might get a shot as a starter only after playing as a backup for a couple of years. As we’ve seen, though, one explosive year is enough to get into the NFL, especially if you have the exposure that playing at Ohio State provides.

This kind of outrageous success in getting your players drafted not only helps keep players home, away from the transfer portal, it is also an enormous recruiting tool. Anybody recruited by Ohio State surely has aspirations of playing on Sundays, of making millions with their football talent. Day can provide hundreds of examples of Buckeyes, players at every position, who made it happen. Justin Fields was at the Buckeye spring game, talking to recruits. A model of success.

Ohio State had a high of 12 players taken in the 2016 NFL draft, five of them in the first round. That’s probably more than 50% of a recruiting class. Yes, that 2015 Buckeye team was loaded, should have won it all. But the Bucks had 10 draftees in each of the last two years, 2020 and 2021. And, forecasters predict seven Buckeyes drafted this year.

The 2022 NFL draft

How will the Buckeyes fare in this year’s draft? Well, I checked a half dozen predictions and mock drafts, and I found a surprising consensus. Although there are ten Buckeyes, who are draft-eligible, with their hats in the ring, the consensus predicts only seven of them will be picked in the seven rounds of the draft.

Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Everyone has the two Ohio State superstar wide receivers going in the first round – anywhere from #3 overall to around #20 or #21. Most, but not all, favor Wilson to go ahead of Olave. Though he may be a bit undersized, Wilson is phenomenal at getting open and then gaining good yardage after the catch. He’s ready for the pros. So is Olave, who offers speed, excellent route-running, and real facility at the catch point.

Some forecasters see as many as six WRs getting taken in the first round. But there are four for sure, and their order is far from fixed. In addition to Wilson and Olave, most analysts see Southern Cal’s Drake London and Alabama’s Jameson Williams as first-rounders. London is a giant receiver, the kind that many pro teams drool over, at 6-4, 220. Williams, former Buckeye, is a speed burner, a big play threat on any down. Ripping his ACL in the national championship game, however, does introduce at least a little question mark next to Williams’s name.

Nicholas Petit-Frere and Thayer Munford. The two Buckeye offensive tackles have size and experience going for them. Generally, Petit-Frere is seen as going in the third round. The issue is apparently his strength, and, indeed, we saw him get eaten up in some OSU games this past season. Munford is predicted to go anywhere from the third to the fifth round. “Inconsistency” seems to be the word hung on Munford.

Jeremy Ruckert. Tight ends usually don’t go fast in the NFL draft. And word has it that Ruckert is one of the best on the board. He could get drafted as early as the third round, more likely the fourth. But all agree that Ruckert is likely to have a good pro career for himself.

Haskell Garrett and Tyreke Smith. These defensive linemen should be higher than they are. They should have had better Ohio State careers than they did. They should have been dominant. Instead, they were disappointing and typified some of the defensive difficulties that the Buckeyes experienced in 2021. Both are seen as third-day picks (rounds 4-7). Nevertheless, I still cling to hope about these two. It wouldn’t surprise me if at least one of them became an NFL starter.

Master Teague, Antuan Jackson, and Demario McCall. While the predictions are that these three Buckeyes won’t be drafted, it would seem that all three of them would be invited to team camps to show their stuff. Playing in a pre-season game or two might pay off. Teague, I would think, would be particularly attractive, maybe for special teams. His pro day numbers were fantastic, and he has size, speed, and experience. Jackson had 23 total tackles in 2021 and 4.5 tackles for loss. But he wasn’t really a starter on the Buckeye D-line, and I would predict an uphill battle for him to secure a roster spot. And McCall? He’s a talent without a position, after having shifted to the defense in 2021. Maybe, some team will like his speed, his work ethic, and take a chance. But again, it will be a tough go.

The draft starts at 8:00 ET on Thursday, April 28, when the first round goes down. I admit that, when it comes to watching the draft on TV, the first round is about as far as I go. Day two will feature the second and third rounds, with rounds 4-7 occurring on Saturday.

Remember, though, that for Ohio State (and other top teams), it’s not just the fate of the players in the draft at stake. Getting players into your program and keeping them there often depends on how you can advance their career, whether they think they have a better shot at getting drafted themselves by wearing your colors. The draft is important and well worth paying attention to.