Illinois Football: Illini NFL Draft history in the making for Johnny Newton?

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - JULY 26: Jer'Zhan Newton of the Illinois Fighting Illini speaks at Big Ten football media days at Lucas Oil Stadium on July 26, 2023 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - JULY 26: Jer'Zhan Newton of the Illinois Fighting Illini speaks at Big Ten football media days at Lucas Oil Stadium on July 26, 2023 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) /

What Illinois football fans experienced in 2022 was something that I am hoping we can experience numerous times over the next decade.

It felt good to finally win again. Anyone under the age of 15 wasn’t alive the last time the Illini won more than six games in the regular season. Winning eight regular season games was something special for this program and its fanbase.

After the 2022 campaign concluded, Illinois then sent numerous players into the NFL Draft. We had four players get selected and six other players get signed after the draft was over. That is a great haul ready to take on the next level.

The good feels of having success with the Illinois football program doesn’t stop there, though. Bret Bielema has this team’s trajectory pointed upward, and on the field, we are led by one of the most dominant players in college football, Johnny Newton.

Illinois football defensive tackle Johnny Newton has a chance to make program history in the 2024 NFL Draft

Coming off a season where Newton finished with 61.0 tackles, 14.0 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 3.0 pass deflections, and 2.0 fumble recoveries, while also making All-Big Ten first team and All-American second team, he is poised to have another big year for the Orange and Blue.

Newton has already been named a preseason All-American first team and a preseason All-Big Ten first team heading into the 2023 campaign. On top of those honors, speculation is starting to trickle out about the 2024 NFL Draft and where players could land.

Jordan Reid of ESPN released his early mock draft for 2024 a couple of weeks ago. In this projection, Reid has Newton being selected with the No. 19 pick in the first round. He has the Seattle Seahawks picking another Illini after taking Devon Witherspoon in the 2023 NFL Draft.

Illinois Football NFL Draft history

With this first-round projection, it got me thinking about the history of the Illinois football program and the NFL Draft. Witherspoon was selected with the No. 5 pick in 2023, so have there ever been back-to-back NFL Drafts where Illinois players were selected in the top five?

The answer is, no.

The last top-five pick was Witherspoon to the Seahawks. The last time Illinois had back-to-back first-round picks was in 2011 and 2012. Corey Liuget was selected No. 18 overall by the San Diego Chargers, and in 2012, Whitney Mercilus was picked No. 26 by the Houston Texans, and AJ Jenkins went No. 30 to the San Francisco 49ers.

Illinois has had two top-five picks in a single NFL Draft. In 1996, Kevin Hardy was selected No. 2 overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Simeon Rice went No. 3 overall to the Arizona Cardinals.

In 1965 and 1966, Illinois was close to having back-to-back top-five NFL Draft picks. In 1965, Dick Butkus was selected by the Chicago Bears with the No. 3 pick in the draft. The following year, Jim Grabowski would go No. 1 overall to the Miami Dolphins, but it was in the AFL. He went No. 9 overall to the Green Bay Packers that year in the NFL. Side note, Butkus was also drafted into the AFL in 1965, but he was the No. 9 pick in the second round to the Denver Broncos.

Johnny Newton’s potential to be a top-five pick

Entering the 2023 campaign, Newton has a chance to do something truly special. He is looked at as one of the best defensive linemen in the college game.

With a mock draft projecting Newton as the No. 19 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, there is still room to grow. The NFL, which has become a more pass-oriented game in recent years, is always looking for a good interior defensive lineman who can stop the run and be an effective pass rusher.

In 2022, Newton checked both boxes. Among all interior defensive linemen at the FBS level, Pro Football Focus had Newton with a run defense grade of 91.9, which ranked him as the No. 3 interior defensive lineman in the country in that category. PFF also had Newton with a grade of 84.7 when it came to the pass rush. This was good enough to rank him No. 14 among all interior defensive linemen on 131 teams.

I believe, without a doubt, Newton can continue to improve on those numbers. If he was one of the best interior defensive linemen in the country in 2022, just imagine what he could do this season. It wouldn’t shock me to see Newton climb from the projected No. 19 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft to someone who is in serious consideration of a top-five pick. Let’s enjoy the greatness that we are watching.

Next. Top 5 Illini players poised to have a breakout season. dark