It’s the circle of life for college football – new recruits come in and fight for playing time, all the while learning from the upperclassmen that are close to moving on – many to the National Football League.

Regarding the latter, who are the players from the Big Ten conference that are nearing a trip to the NFL – and likely having their names called during the 2011 NFL Draft?

Sure, it’s a little early to project an accurate group of players – but let’s attempt to sort out a list of the Big Ten’s top 20 – including a handful of underclassmen that may bolt a year early (marked with an asterisk).

The Top 20 NFL Prospects in the Big Ten for 2010

20. Kevin Koger* (TE – Michigan)

Koger not only has legit size, but he can also catch and run well for a tight end.  Certainly, as he continues to improve in Rich Rod’s offense, Koger could turn some heads by the end of the year – and perhaps bolt a year early for the NFL.

19. Joe Suhey* (FB – Penn State)

It’s a safe bet that Suhey likely would stay through his senior year as a fullback.  Still the Penn State underclassmen already shows NFL abilities, not just as a solid blocker, but also a contributor on offense (20+ carries and 20+ carries last season, with no fumbles).

18. Stephen Schilling (OG – Michigan)

Schilling’s scout.com profile most notably says that he is “very rarely beaten off the ball.”  Certainly, that’s a quality that NFL scouts will keep an eye on.

That, plus experience – and entering last season – Schilling was already 2nd team All-Big Ten according to Phil Steele.  With another year under his belt – and a clean bill of health, expect even more accolades to come.

17. Keith Smith (WR – Purdue)

Certainly, one could plug in other wide receiver prospects into this slot, such as Iowa’s Johnson-Koulianos, underclassmen Tandon Doss from Indiana, or Mark Dell of Michigan State.

However, it’s difficult to ignore Smith’s 91 catches and 1,100 yards last season for Purdue.  One more year like that and it’ll be tough for NFL scouts to ignore him.

16. John Moffitt (OG – Wisconsin)

The Big Ten is known for its big bodies that fill the trenches, and Moffitt is yet another that fits that bill.  Along with teammate Carimi – and the rest of the Badgers offensive line – Moffitt may make John Clay’s job the easiest of all the backs in the Big Ten this coming season.

15. Obi Ezeh (ILB, Michigan)

With Brandon Graham off to the NFL, Ezeh will need to step up and anchor the Michigan defense in 2010.

Ezeh – who has the tools to make it in the NFL – had seven or more tackles (14 versus rival Michigan State) during each of the first five games of last season.

14. Kirk Cousins* (QB – Michigan State)

Certainly, there’s an outside chance that the talented Cousins could choose to bolt a year early for thekirk-cousins-michigan-state-quarterback NFL – though barring a spectacular season, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Sure, the young man has the size (6’3”) to be a QB at the next level – and he’s proven to be an accurate passer and a good leader on offense.  However, down the stretch in 2009, his completion percentages saw a drastic dive in the team’s final 3 games – and he’ll need improved longevity going forward.

13. Tyler Sash* (S – Iowa)

There are all kinds of ways to describe Sash, from being a “right place at the right time” player, to being a defensive spark, or even being the overall glue of the Iowa defensive secondary.

However you describe him, he’s a legit NFL prospect that in his own right, could follow the shoes of former Hawkeye defensive playmakers such as Indianapolis Colts star Bob Sanders.

12. Jack Crawford* (DE – Penn State)

Crawford is a real unique specimen – being originally from Great Britian and someone that – before attending Penn State – had only played football for two years in high school,

Certainly, his combination of size (6’5”) and speed (4.55) helps – and couple that with raw talent under the tutulege of PSU D-line coach Larry Johnson, and you have another gifted athlete who could wind up in the first round of the NFL draft if he plays his cards right.  The question remains: will it be a year early, or could he use the extra year of experience as a senior?

11. DeVier Posey* (WR – Ohio State)

Posey is 6’3” with 4.5 speed, definitely the type of receiver that can make it in the NFL.  The soon-to-be junior followed up his true freshman season (11 catches) with a 60 catch year, 800+ yards and 8 touchdowns – including a number of clutch receptions in big games.

10. Ryan Kerrigan (DE – Purdue)

Purdue’s Kerrigan is an All-Big Ten player and a beast that’s often overlooked by prognosticators inryan-kerrigan-purdue-defensive-end favor of some of the other big defensive names of the Big Ten.  Don’t be surprised if he ends up being better than any of them when it’s all said and done.

9. John Clay* (RB – Wisconsin)

Clay may just be the most underrated back in the country – and if you don’t believe it, take a closer look at his numbers.  Entering his redshirt junior season, Clay has 27 touchdowns over the last two years, including over 1,500 rushing yards last year for the Badgers.

8. Justin Boren OG – Ohio State

Similar to Penn State’s Stephen Wisniewski, Boren has a lot of experience starting at multiple O-line positions (LG and C) – all of which date back to when he was a freshman.

The other interesting tidbit on the young man: he transferred from Michigan to Ohio State.  Gasp! Is that even allowed?

7. Terrelle Pryor* (QB – Ohio State)

Pryor may just be the most interesting case on this list.  Certainly, many would argue that he should stay for his senior year.  Others know how the kid is, most notably the spectacle of making a decision as a top recruit a few years ago – and that could point to an early exit for the NFL.

On top of that, Pryor – while some may argue is not an elite passer yet – still is 6’6” and is lightning-quick and a freakish athlete – just the type of player NFL scouts would love to have.

6. Stephen Wisniewski (C – Penn State)

While playing at the center position for the first time in 2009, Wisniewski made a smooth transition and did a great job for the Nittany Lions.

He’s a very durable and talented lineman, and has a lot of experience throughout the years at Penn State playing in multiple positions – and his talent and versatility should make him a valuable NFL draft pick in 2011.

5. Greg Jones (ILB – Michigan State)

Many critics may first point to his size, but plain and simple, Greg Jones has the “it factor”.  He plays on all cylinders all game long and can single-handedly disrupt an entire offense.  If you don’t buy it, look no further than his First All-Big Ten honors, plus his 280 tackles and 11 sacks combined over the last two seasons.

Mark my words, Greg Jones will overcome the size factor and be an effective player in the NFL.evan-royster-penn-state-running-back

4. Evan Royster (RB – Penn State)

Royster has arguably the most unique combination of speed, vision and hands among the backs in the Big Ten – and if he remains healthy, should be a very serviceable running back in the NFL.

Royster’s 1,169 yards rushing in 2009 were second only to Wisconsin’s John Clay.

3. Cameron Heyward (DE – Ohio State)

If it wasn’t for so much inconsistency, Heyward would likely be at the top of this list.  Still, the talent is there – and coupled with a 6’6”, 287- pound frame, this Ohio State Buckeye could become a regular in the NFL Pro Bowl if drafted into the right situation.

One good sign: he’s stepped up in big games, such as his 11 tackle, 2 sack performance against the Nittany Lions last season.

2. Gabe Carimi (OT – Wisconsin)

Carimi has the type of frame (6’8” 313lb.) that NFL scouts drool over – but that’s not all.  He also has the talent, and seems destined to continue the recent tradition of Wisconsin Badgers making a successful transition from the college game and into the NFL.

1. Adrian Clayborn (DE – Iowa)

Clayborn possesses some freakish speed and athletic ability for a man his size.  No better proof of this can be found than during last year’s game at Penn State, when Clayborn not only broke through the line and blocked a punt, but also was able to grab the football in stride and outrun everyone for a game-changing touchdown.

This talented Hawkeye seems like the closest thing to a sure thing when it comes to being a future Big Ten NFL talent.

adrian-clayborn-iowa-defensive-end

iowa's Adrian Clayborn is KP's top NFL prospect in the Big Ten

* Also posted to my Bleacher Report page

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