Michigan football's junior class has plenty of NFL draft potential
Michigan likely won't match its record-setting 2017 NFL draft output next spring, but depending on who declares, the Wolverines could have a high number of players taken in the 2019 draft.
Michigan has several juniors who have yet to make announcements on their futures and one player, Rashan Gary, who has already declared.
The Wolverines had 11 players taken in the 2017 draft, a program record. The 2019 draft could see at least six Wolverines picked, if not more. And the one player who continues to trend upward in most everyone's eyes is junior All-American linebacker Devin Bush Jr.
"I really like Devin Bush. I have him somewhere in the middle of the first round, he's where the NFL is going to right now. A super athletic three-down player who can play different spots as a run and chase linebacker," NFL Draft analyst Matt Miller told the Free Press this week.
Both ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay agree with Miller's assessment.
Kiper has Bush at No. 8 on his big board. McShay slots him at No. 21. Most agree his explosiveness as a blitzer and ability to cover the field side-to-side are his best attributes.
Michigan lists Bush at 5-foot-11, 233 pounds. Those listings aren't always accurate. If Bush declares for the draft — he hasn't yet — his measurements at the combine would be important. At the same time, most teams are aware he's a bit undersized.
And plenty won't care.
"The only thing that I could see hurting him is if he comes in and just bombs the measurements," Miller added. "If he has super short arms or something. But then again, everyone already knows he's sort of small. So it shouldn't get held against him too much."
Gary, who will not play in the Peach Bowl, is strongly regarded as a first-round talent by most experts. McShay had him at No. 2 overall in his latest mock draft, despite his absence for roughly half of the 2018 season with a shoulder injury and a lack of outstanding numbers in college.
Teams are looking at other details concerning Gary.
Scouts have been waiting to see what he does at the combine since he was a senior in high school. If he lives up to the hype in that setting, he'll be a top-10 choice.
"He's exciting athletically and it sounds like from a character standpoint he'll be great. For him, maybe it's more 'what could have been (at Michigan).' I think he got played out of position some as an edge rusher instead of a three-technique," Miller says. "But he's going to test so well. People are going to fall in love with his potential. He'll end up as a top-10 pick as long as everything checks out medically and it should."
Cornerbacks David Long and Lavert Hill are two other juniors who have yet to announce their future plans.
Hill was a third-team All-American this season and a Thorpe Award semifinalist. He's a two-time All-Big Ten corner at 5-foot-11, 168 pounds. He'll have to get stronger and improve his tackling, but he's versatile enough to cover receivers inside and out.
Long might be more physically imposing and faster. He's only been a full-time corner in college, as he spent most of his prep career playing receiver. Neither Long nor Hill are seen as players who have hit their ceilings yet. Long's growth, especially, could make a big difference with more experience.
"I've watched them enough to be familiar with them in case they declare, but I haven't watched them enough to have a full grade on them," Miller said. "I know any time I talk about Michigan, fans ask me about those two. They're both really good, it's been obvious. But I haven't watched enough to be able to get too much into it."
Michigan is still, of course, waiting on a decision from junior quarterback Shea Patterson. Miller said this week that he believes Patterson could work his way up to a Day 2 (second- or third-round) pick if he declares this year.
Those are the top juniors. Guard Ben Bredeson has said he's returning to school. Safety Josh Metellus said he'd do his due-dilligence. Tight end Zach Gentry has not made any public comments about his plans. Linebacker Khaleke Hudson drew buzz before the year started, but hasn't been mentioned as much of late. Underclassmen have until Jan. 14 to declare.
Among the seniors, Miller loves defensive end Chase Winovich and running back Karan Higdon.
Winovich, he says, could be a first-rounder depending on his testing.
"It's going to be about how well he tests. But everyone loves him. You talk to coaches and they all tell you 'we love that dude.' He's kind of the heart and soul of their team, that's very important," Miller said of Winovich, who could be a hybrid outside linebacker in the NFL. "He's not as strong as Sam Hubbard, but he's in that area of every time you watch him he stands out. Makes a ton of hustle plays and he's super smart. Teams could fall in love with a guy like that. If he tests well enough, he could be a first-round type guy. If he tests poorly, could fall to like the third round. A lot will depend on how he tests."
Higdon, meanwhile, has had the attention of scouts for most of the season. He considered leaving early last year and might have earned a decent grade then. His return to Michigan, stint as a captain and consistent production has turned plenty of heads.
Also important? He has carried the ball just 471 times in college, meaning he's relatively fresh entering the NFL.
"I'm excited to see him at the Senior Bowl. Every time I watched Michigan play this year it was like 'can they please just feed him the ball,' " Miller says. "He's a little small, change of pace guy. I want to see how he catches the ball. Because with his frame, that's what he'll have to do at the next level.
"He doesn't have a lot of wear and tear, that'll help. But we have to see what he can do catching the ball. Senior Bowl practices will give him a ton of opportunity to show that. He's quick and powerful, though."
Contact Nick Baumgardner: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickbaumgardner.