At this time last year, it seemed as if the Big Ten was finally poised in 2016 to end its 21-year drought of not having a quarterback taken in the first round.
In fact, four conference QBs were projected to go in the first round of varying 2016 NFL mock drafts. (Yes, even Indiana's Nate Sudfeld.) That's obviously not the case anymore: Penn State's Christian Hackenberg is looked upon as a gamble, Michigan State's Connor Cook "has something off" about him, and Ohio State's Cardale Jones has been compared to former draft flop Jamarcus Russell.
Cook and Hackenberg are outside shots at the first round, but few outlets -- not ESPN, CBS or NBC -- have them going within the top 31 picks. This isn't the result anyone expected a year ago; this was supposed to be one of the Big Ten's best-ever draft classes.
Well, despite all that, it still can be.
No matter what happens in the first round, this class will still be a historic one for the conference. Ever since the NFL draft began in 1936, the Big Ten has only twice had more than three quarterbacks drafted (1986, 2004) -- and it's never had more than four. This year's quartet, all listed above, are basically locks to be selected, and it's possible that a fifth signal-caller such as Michigan's Jake Rudock could be taken late on Day 3.
In other words, the Big Ten's 2016 crop of NFL QBs could do something that none of the other 80 classes before it ever could: Have five players drafted in one year. That type of quantity would be unprecedented.
And even if that doesn't happen? It's still not fair to pre-emptively label this class a disappointment.
Over the last 10 years, only nine B1G QBs have been drafted -- and only three of them (Kirk Cousins, Chad Henne, Russell Wilson) have earned more than 15 career starts. If the Big Ten wants to improve its reputation in the pros, that number obviously needs to rise. And this class provides that opportunity.
First-rounders don't necessarily factor into that equation; the Big Ten needs production. Both it and the NFL will take a Tom Brady (No. 199 overall pick, 2000) over a Jeff George (No. 1 overall pick, 1990) any day. And that's what makes this 2016 class special. First round or not, there's a lot of talent here.
That just hasn't been the case in past classes. Sure, the 2004 class had four signal-callers fly off the board on the draft's final day. But no NFL team, or respectable media analyst for that matter, felt that Jim Sorgi or Jeff Smoker was going to become a dynasty cornerstone or an every-day starter.
Cook and Hackenberg are different; they'll be expected to eventually start by whomever drafts them. And, even if they aren't taken on Day 1, that doesn't change all the hype they've both generated. Former NFL head coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said Cook is "going to be I think perhaps the best quarterback in this year's draft." And he also said that he'd be "shocked if [Hackenberg] doesn't go in the first round."
Both might flop, or go on to long NFL careers. Ditto for Jones and Sudfeld. But the fact is, no matter what happens, this will be one of the Big Ten's most memorable classes. At worst, it's still historic for the sheer volume of quarterbacks. But, at best, this conference could set a tone that might not be rivaled in years. Another two starters and it would trail only the SEC in the number of current NFL starting quarterbacks.
So forget the first round -- this draft class is worth tracking for so much more.