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Football Roundtable: Writers examine professional prospects of Northwestern players ahead of NFL Draft

Dean+Lowry+lunges+to+tackle+a+ball+carrier.+The+defensive+end+is+hoping+to+be+selected+in+the+upcoming+2016+NFL+Draft%2C+held+this+Thursday+through+Saturday.
Dean Lowry lunges to tackle a ball carrier. The defensive end is hoping to be selected in the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft, held this Thursday through Saturday.

Dean Lowry lunges to tackle a ball carrier. The defensive end is hoping to be selected in the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft, held this Thursday through Saturday.

Daily file photo by Jacob Swan

Daily file photo by Jacob Swan

Dean Lowry lunges to tackle a ball carrier. The defensive end is hoping to be selected in the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft, held this Thursday through Saturday.

Bobby Pillote and Max Schuman

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The NFL draft will be held this Thursday through Saturday in Chicago, and defensive end Dean Lowry and superback Dan Vitale each have a good chance of hearing their name called. Writers Max Schuman and Bobby Pillote discuss Draft Day possibilities and the NFL futures of other Northwestern players.

1. Who will get drafted first: Lowry or Vitale?

Max Schuman: I think Vitale will be the first to hear his name called. The former superback has a diverse and unique skillset, with a blend of blocking and pass-catching abilities that will help him stand out from the crowd in the later rounds of the draft, and his outstanding performance at the NFL Combine in February has to have teams intrigued.

Even though he doesn’t play a glamorous position, I could see a team taking him in the fifth round or so. If you’re a playoff team with no real holes to fill and the ability to reach for a luxury, why not spend a draft pick on a versatile weapon like Vitale?

Bobby Pillote: Lowry will be first off the board, and will probably go somewhere in the fifth or sixth round (I expect Vitale to be a sixth or seventh round pick). Both Lowry and Vitale are physically impressive, and each posted a standout performance at the NFL Combine in February, but Lowry gets an edge because his position is simply more practical in today’s NFL. Some team — perhaps the New England Patriots — will covet Lowry’s positional versatility and find him worthy of a draft selection in the middle rounds. Vitale is a more specialized player and has fewer potential professional homes.

2. Assuming Lowry and Vitale both make an NFL roster, who will have a better NFL career?

Schuman: Though I think Vitale will be drafted first, I think Lowry ends up having more impact throughout his career. That’s no knock on Vitale, who has a real shot to become a fan favorite wherever he’s drafted, but the realities of the NFL mean that his statistical upside as a pass-catching fullback is limited.

Meanwhile, in a league with a high demand for, and a limited supply of, versatile defensive lineman, Lowry should have a role as a rotational player for years. He has the size, the motor and enough athleticism to notch three or four sacks every season as a 3-4 defensive end. Pressure is valuable in the league, and Lowry should be able to carve out a role providing it.

Pillote: This one is close for me, but in spite of Lowry’s versatility I think Vitale actually has a better shot at a long NFL career. The superback has been talking up his ability and willingness to play special teams at the next level, and while many teams don’t reserve a roster spot for a traditional fullback most can find room for an effective special teams player who occasionally contributes on offense. Former Wildcat Steve Tasker (Communication ’85) made it 12 years as a pro almost exclusively playing special teams, and if Vitale makes it that long in the NFL it will probably be in a similar role.

3. Where will Nick VanHoose end up?

Schuman: I anticipate seeing VanHoose getting signed as an undrafted free agent but failing to make an NFL roster for the coming season. As an important contributor on one of the best defenses in the country last season, some team will bring him in and give him a shot in the preseason.

But even though he was an excellent player in college, I don’t think he has what it takes to hold up in coverage in the NFL. With quarterbacks who can put it in the right spot every time and receivers who run picture-perfect routes over and over, I don’t know that VanHoose has the athleticism and fluidity to keep up.

Pillote: According to NFL.com, VanHoose actually has the highest player grade out of him, Lowry and Vitale. VanHoose demonstrated all season long that he was perhaps the most talented of that trio, but didn’t have a chance to build up any pre-draft buzz due to a thumb injury sustained in NU’s bowl practices in December. Just based on his tape I think some team will take a flier on him in the seventh round, and I think he has the ability to stick around in the NFL for a few years. The Chicago Bears, who have enjoyed the services of former NU cornerback Sherrick McManis (Communication ’10) for the past four seasons, could be an intriguing option.

4. Looking ahead, which current NU players might be NFL prospects a year from now?

Schuman: I think the defense will see a few key players, like linebacker Anthony Walker and safety Godwin Igwebuike, generate a lot of draft buzz throughout next season. Both are playmakers with the athleticism to make it in the pros, and it would be no surprise to see both declare for the draft despite still possessing an additional year of eligibility.

But the player who I think will be a sleeper in next season’s draft, and possibly the best pro on the team right now, is rising senior cornerback Matthew Harris. He flew under the radar a bit last season, but at 5-foot-11 with solid athleticism and great coverage instincts, I think he will rise up boards all season and ultimately be a bona fide NFL corner.

Pillote: Anthony Walker will be very tempted to leave school early if he reprises his sophomore campaign, but assuming Walker stays then Harris will far and away be the Cats’ leading draft prospect. He’ll be a four-year starter by the end of next year, and he drew some attention around the Big Ten for his impressive play this season. An offseason of buzz will help his draft stock, and there really isn’t any other senior on the roster who has a serious shot at drawing NFL attention.

Emails: robertpillote2017@u.northwestern.edu, maxschuman2018@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @BobbyPillote

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