April 30, 2012

Borton's Blog: Deciphering the draft

Michigan fans received three scoops of reminder over the weekend about just how special their 2011 football team turned out. The 11-2 Sugar Bowl champions, it appears, weren't exactly overburdened with NFL prospects.

• Mike Martin, third round, Tennessee Titans

• David Molk, seventh round, San Diego Chargers

• Junior Hemingway, seventh round, Kansas City Chiefs

That's it. That's whom the pros were interested in, at least in terms of expending draft picks.

Now, a couple of points need to be made. Molk goes higher, had he not significantly injured a foot in warm-ups for the Sugar Bowl (and subsequently played one-legged in one of the gutsier bowl efforts you'll see). Others, such as Ryan Van Bergen, will be signing free agent deals and have a chance to play professionally.

But there's no denying Brady Hoke and his coaches weren't playing with a stacked hand, at least as far as top-tier seniors headed for the next level.

Consider this: Illinois -- against whom Michigan went on the road and knocked off to jumpstart a strong November stretch -- had four players drafted before the Wolverines celebrated a second senior chosen. The Illini saw defensive end Whitney Mercilus and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins go in the first round, with safety Tavon Wilson and Jeff Allen picked in the second.

That wasn't exactly an aberration on the weekend. Iowa, Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State also featured at least four players chosen prior to the Wolverines boasting of a second selection after Martin.

Folks wonder how the Wolverines could go on the road and lose to an "inferior" Iowa program. Well, the poor old Hawkeyes put a half-dozen players onto the NFL Draft board (including first-round offensive lineman Riley Reiff) before Molk was chosen in the seventh round.

The other team that beat the Wolverines last fall nearly matched that effort. Michigan State saw five players drafted before Molk, and a sixth shortly thereafter. Purdue and Northwestern each featured two draftees, one less than a Michigan program that has historically owned each.

What's that all say? Well, a few things…

• It's obvious Michigan's coaching staff knows how to organize and develop under-appreciated talent. Walk-ons like safety Jordan Morgan and defensive lineman Will Heininger played integral roles in a breakthrough year on the defensive side of the ball. Van Bergen and others who may not eventually get drafted stepped up and played huge parts in the defensive drama.

• Michigan featured some significant non-senior talent in 2011 that bodes well for 2012 and beyond. Quarterback Denard Robinson, running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, left tackle Jake Long, linebacker Jake Ryan and cornerback Blake Countess represent a handful in which the NFL will eventually be very interested.

• The Wolverines flat-out got lucky in some ways during Hoke's first season. A significant injury to Robinson, or a couple on the offensive line, would have sunk Michigan, at least in terms of double-digit wins.

• The best is yet to come. There's certainly a correlation between getting the top high school players into a program and eventually producing the most NFL picks. Michigan has ramped up its recruiting, and is on its way to a second straight top-10 class nationally, and quite possibly a top-three effort. The Wolverines are once again going after pro-style talent, after a brief plunge into the smaller-quicker world of the spread.

So draft days weren't exactly banner-waving ones for the Wolverines. But a change in those fortunes - not to mention the ones Michigan fans care more about - appears inevitable.

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