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Early NFL Draft Projections for Illinois Football

With 5 Illini football players in the running for a place on an NFL roster, we take a look at where they may end up.

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

With news breaking of the 3 Illini that will be attending the NFL combine, we wanted to preview all 5 members of the Fighting Illini that are in the hunt for a potential draft spot in April.

First, let's start with the 2 players that will NOT be in Indianapolis at the combine...

Ted Karras (Right Guard) 6'4' 308lbs:

Teddy Karras has been a staple for the Illini at the guard position on the offensive line.  He was invited to play in the East-West Shrine game this January, where he impressed scouts with his power and blocking ability in the run game.  NFL.com ranks Karras at 5.16 overall, and a player that could really benefit a "power-based running game looking for tough guys."

Strengths: Power and Control

I could watch those clips all day...Teddy does a really nice job standing up the linebacker rush in the first clip, allowing his running back to break through for a big gain.  In the second clip, Karras simply over-powers the Florida State Seminole defensive tackle.  Both clips do a great job showcasing just how strong Teddy Karras is, and how much leverage he is able to gain at the point of attack.

Weakness: Position and Speed

With that power, comes a bit of an obvious weakness...the inability to stay low.  You'll see in both clips that Karras is ALWAYS above his man, which can cause problems if the d-lineman can get around him.  Mind you, Karras has already torn his ACL and MCL in his left leg which certainly doesn't help his case.  However, there is certainly time during the off-season to improve his position and speed for a pro day appearance in the future.

TCR Pre-Combine Draft Projection: 7th Rd (#208) Minnesota Vikings

Karras is a tenacious blocker that plays with a lot of intensity.  With his ability to run block effectively, I feel like he would be a great fit for the Vikings.  Minnesota ran the football the 4th most times last season in the NFL, and their need for consistent run blockers is paramount with Adrian Peterson in the backfield.  In a place like Minnesota where the run game is king, Karras could help aid the Vikings in years to come.

Clayton Fejeldelem (Free Safety) 6'0' 200lbs:

Talk about one of the best stories of the NFL Draft, Clayton Fejeldelem was one of the leaders for the Illini defensively last season.  He led the team in tackles with 140 (11.67 per game), and provided a few key turnovers last season.  Fej is ranked as the 8th best free safety in the 2016 draft by CBS Sports, and the guy can flat out make plays like this one from the East West Shrine game...

Strengths: Speedy Ballhawk

Talk about swarming to the football, Fej has played quite the versatile role for the defense at Illinois.  The good news with the instability in his position is that he has learned to cover a lot of ground in a defensive scheme.  Having the football smarts to know where to be can be a deadly combination when mixed with speed...and that's EXACTLY what Clayton can offer.  His ability to read the field and close quickly on the football.

Weakness: Size

Fej by trade is not a very large safety by any team's standards.  While it's difficult to improve is height, Clayton will need to find a way to cover 6'5' receivers in the NFL with his 6'0' figure by bulking up and improving his jumping ability.

TCR Pre-Combine Draft Projection: 6th Rd (#166) New York Giants

The mark of a great DB in the NFL is speed, agility, and tackling ability.  Clayton Fejeldelem showed Illinois fans that's he's more than capable of providing that for a defense throughout a football season, and he would make a great fit like the Giants who are looking for some depth at the defensive back position.  Just look at the clips above!

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Geronimo Allison (Wide Receiver) 6'4' 200lbs:

Allison is the first of the three Illini players we will cover that was invited to the NFL combine.  He stands a towering 6'4' and is known for utilizing his impressive wingspan and hands to make catches.  He led the Illini in catches last season and was known as a high-point target for Wes Lunt and the Illinois offense.  His NFL.com draft grade is 4.86.

Strengths: Hands and Footwork

In the East West Shrine Game, Geronimo caught 4 passes (2 for TD's) and really impressed scouts with his footwork down the sideline.  As primarily an outside receiver, those are two traits that NFL teams love to see.  Allison also did a nice job catching passes in bounds when thrown his direction.  Utilizing his vertical size could be a great advantage to teams looking for a red-zone threat on fade routes.

Weakness: Speed and Separation

While Allison does a nice job of getting off the line of scrimmage, he struggles with gaining separation from his defenders.  As a possible NFL outside receiver, he will be expected to blow past defensive secondaries on go routes and deep passes.  We never really saw that during his 2 seasons in Champaign, and that will certainly be something scouts want to see during the combine (40 yard dash to be exact).

TCR Pre-Combine Draft Projection: 6th Rd (#186) New England Patriots

The Patriots are known for finding receivers that can get open over the middle of the field in Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman.  Their only "real" deep threat is Rob Gronkowski at the tight end position, so New England will be looking to add a tall outside receiver to complete their arsenal of targets for Tom Brady next season.  What Geronimo Allison lacks in speed, he certainly makes up for in size and length.  Geronimo will also learn a lot working in a system like New England's, and would certainly have an opportunity to adapt to an NFL style passing game.

Josh Ferguson (Running Back) 5'9' 198lbs:

Josh Ferguson was the glue that held together the Illinois offense the past 3 seasons, and he will certainly be remembered at Illinois as one of the more versatile backs we have ever seen.  His ability to run and catch in the backfield will make him a player that scouts will look to add to their rosters.  NFL.com's grade for Ferguson is 5.34 and predicts him to be a backup or potential starter wherever he lands.

Strengths: Versatility and Quickness

That clip from the Purdue game is a perfect example of how Ferguson runs.  His patience and vision allows him to find the running lane, and he breaks a big run with a juke to the right that mirrors the running style of a Ronnie Hillman of the Denver Broncos.  Even though Ferguson never ran for over 1,000 yds in a season, his explosiveness and agility in the backfield really could benefit the 2 back offenses that are becoming more relevant in the NFL.  Not to mention, he has the ability to catch passes on check downs and in open space.

Weakness: Indecisive and Undersized

You all knew this was coming, but I'll say it anyways...Josh is undersized for a traditional NFL running back.  That doesn't mean he won't work in an NFL offense, but it certainly handcuffs him and his options moving forward.  Also, Ferguson's patience sometimes leads to tackles for losses as he does not traditionally attack the line of scrimmage the second he gets the ball.  With proper blocking, Ferguson can run with the best of them...but then again, proper blocking really helps a lot of running backs run well.

TCR Pre-Combine Draft Projection: 5th Rd (#151) Green Bay Packers:

As painful as it would be to see Ferguson play against my Chicago Bears this fall, the Pack really do need an undersized back that can catch passes in the backfield to complement players like Eddie Lacy and James Starks who are both power backs and traditionally run up the middle.  Ferguson would be a nice addition as a player that can quickly get to the outside, as well as a nice check down for Aaron Rodgers (especially if they catch the injury bug like they did last season).

Jihad Ward (Defensive End) 6'5' 296lbs:

The final player that will be attending the NFL combine this year is defensive end Jihad Ward.  Ward certainly fits the bill as an NFL D-lineman standing 6'5' and weighing 296lbs.  In a MUCH improved defensive line this season, Jihad Ward led the defensive line with 53 tackles and provided 3.5 tackles for losses last season.  He's the best player in the Illini draft class with an NFL.com ranking of 5.57, but just how high is his draft stock before the combine starts?

Strengths: Athleticism and Pursuit

Watch the second clip posted above...THAT is what scouts want from a defensive lineman looking to get drafted. Some scouts have even tweeted about how impressed they were when Ward dunked a basketball in a recent video, which shows just how athletic Jihad is.  As a defensive end, Ward also does a GREAT job of pursuing the play until the whistle is blown.  His ability to power through a tight end or tackle is impressive, and NFL scouts and coaches have added Ward to their wish list because of it...

Weakness: Technique

While Ward plays with a passion on the defensive line, his hands and feet can be a little sloppy (see the second clip in his intro).  While the ability to "fly around" is not necessarily a bad thing, coaches will be looking to work with him to help develop his skills and technique once in the league.

TCR Pre-Combine Draft Projection: 2nd Rd (#60) Carolina Panthers:

Ward has been projected as a late first-round pick by some experts, and he'll likely solidify himself as a second-rounder with a good performance at the combine.

Along with Josh Ferguson, Ward is another player I would LOVE to see join the Chicago Bears next season...but after watching Von Miller trash his offensive line and get to his QB, Ron Rivera might want his own rusher that is fast enough to get to the edge and pursue opposing quarterbacks.  Jihad Ward could be that guy, and could also be versatile enough to work with a former '85 Bear on improving his defense for the future.