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NFL Prospects for Illinois Football

There are several current Illini who could have a career at the next level.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, I was going to have a nice write up on Larry Boyd.

It sounds like that situation will force me to exclude him in a discussion on potential pros for the Illini — for the time being.

However, we may have gained a high-upside linebacker recruit who could impact the position greatly, and add another pro prospect with room to grow in Camilo Eifler.

We'll start with the best of the best:

Ricky Smalling, Wide Receiver

This is the cream of the crop. While he's only played one year, Smalling has proven to be a ball-getter. He high points the ball nicely and is great at getting in and out of his breaks at the line of scrimmage. Back shoulder throws, go-up-and-get-them fades, deep routes, crossing routes — nothing seems to be out of his teachers. There's a reason he led the team in catches and yards as a freshman. He's special.

Round: Second (possibly high first)

This is the ceiling for a player as talented as Ricky Smalling. He has a similar build and profile to Keenan Allen, a wide receiver for the San Diego Chargers. Allen was a second-round pick, and has had an excellent career thus far when healthy. Smalling, with health and continuity (especially in a new system), could be catapulted to a point where the second round could be far too low.

Del'Shawn Phillips, Linebacker

Phillips is as instinctual a linebacker as the Illini have had at the position in several years.

He's very quick to diagnose a play and reacts with a nice fluidity. He tackles well and can pack a wallop when he gets to the ball carrier. He sometimes gets lost in the laundry, in football parlance, and needs to improve upon his lateral quickness and coverage in the secondary, but he has all the tools to be an impactful outside or inside linebacker in multiple systems.

Round: Third

This is a pretty solid spot for him. He needs some refinement, but overall, Phillips could have a similar impact to a player such as San Francisco linebacker Navarro Bowman, a jack of all trades, Swiss army knife kind of player. A third-round pick, Bowman blossomed in Vic Fangio's 3-4 base defense, sliding in as a Blitzer just as easily as dropping into coverage.

That's Phillips ceiling with a big senior year, development-wise, and he could make a lot of prognosticators look foolish. He could also end up like a Shea McClellan clone, a guy who takes several years to find his role, but eventually fills it rather well. More than likely, it's a little of both for Phillips.

Alex Palczewski, Offensive Lineman

This is purely a projection pick, because we haven't seen the best of Palczewski, but, long term, he might have as high a ceiling as anyone on the roster.

He's a mauler, a man who could dominate at the next level if his career arc continues to uptick with his playing time. He has everything you want in a dominant college guard and future pro. Size, solid footwork (which will hopefully only get better), and a mean streak that could carry him far in this profession.

Round: Third (with a chance to go much higher)

As Quenton Nelson proved, guards can be coveted when they play up to their potential. I'm not going to compare Palczewski to Nelson, but he has that upside if everything develops these next few seasons. His comparison is more apt to a former Illini in Jeff Allen, the Chicago kid with no pub who turned into a quality Big Ten guard and has had a prominent pro career both with the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans.

They both have a chip on their shoulder that translates well to the position, a tenacity that carries them through good and bad plays. Palczewski has the upside of a ten-year vet.

Mike Dudek, Wide Receiver

What more can be said? The hardest worker on the team has been through everything at Illinois. Great freshman season. Injury after injury. Bad offensive play calling. Huge upside still.

This system might just be the perfect jump off for Dudek into a decent level draft pick. For now, it's difficult to peg, but I'll try.

Round: Sixth

Dudek is the kind of player more and more NFL teams look for in the slot receiver role. A nightmare matchup for linebackers and nickel corners. A precise route runner who can take the top off a defense deep. However, it's just not as highly coveted a position, draft-wise.

I would peg Dudek as a Jeff Janis type, a player who plays a role for a top quarterback, who works his way into a rotation with effort and ability. Dudek could carve a nice little niche for himself with his tireless work ethic and seemingly untapped ability.

Also, have you seen his body? That’s a NFL body.

Bobby Roundtree, Defensive lineman

This has the biggest boom or bust potential.

Roundtree has the size and speed you want from a three-down edge rusher, and his play early on in the season established the salivating ability, however he disappeared for stretches as the Big Ten season slogged on.

His ability is apparent and he has the highest upside of any of the defensive linemen on the current roster, but he's raw and will need a few years of seasoning before we can truly assess his game.

Round: ?

It's difficult to peg a round for Roundtree, as he's only scratched the surface of his voluminous upside. I personally see a lot of Julius Peppers in his size and strength, and Lovie made a similar comparison when recruiting him, but Jihad Ward might be a better long term outlook. If he bulks up and plays to his potential, he could be a star in the profession.

There are obviously many more in the years to come who could end up being drafted and having prolific NFL careers (Eifler, Calvin Avery, Bennett Williams, Nick Allegretti, Verdis Brown, any of the freshman QBs and 2019 recruit Marquez Beason come to mind), but we have yet to see a lot of them play and we'll get an opportunity to assess in a few years just who became who, but for now these players seem to have the best chance to play in the League.

Who do you see making the next level? Let us know in the comments!