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Indiana football and the NFL Draft: A weird history

The Hoosiers haven’t had a first round NFL Draft pick since 1994.

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NFL: Los Angeles Rams Draft Party Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The year is 1994.

Boyz II Men owns the Billboard top-100. The Lion King and Forrest Gump are No. 1 and 2 in the domestic box office. Newt Gingrich launches the Republican Revolution during the first Clinton Administration.

And the New York Football Giants select Indiana football wide receiver Thomas Lewis with the 24th overall pick in the first round of the 1994 NFL Draft. The Houston Texans do not exist. The Carolina Panthers are a year away from their inaugural season.

Lewis, who was born in 1972, goes on to play 34 games in the NFL, catching 74 passes for 1,032 receiving yards and five touchdowns.

Lewis is the last Hoosier to have been selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. Here, 29 years later, the program is still searching for a talent worthy of one of those 32 highly-coveted picks.

They’ve come close! Seven Hoosiers have been selected in the second round since 1994. Offensive tackle Rodger Saffold, a two-time Pro Bowler and former Second-team All-Pro in 2017, was selected with the 33rd overall pick in 2010. The very first pick of the second round.

That’s Saffold in the image above at the then-new Los Angeles Rams’ draft event in 2016, six years after he heard his name called by the then-St. Louis Rams.

The first NFL Draft was held in 1936. It’s obviously changed over the years, but a total of 182 former Indiana football players have been selected in the draft’s history. Of those 182, 14 were picked in the first round.

For the sake of reference, Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State has had 23 of its former stars selected in the first round of the draft in the last decade alone. Ocean of a gap between those two programs, but those are the numbers we’re working with.

There are currently 12 former Hoosiers active on NFL rosters. Of those 12, seven were undrafted free agents. Could any future Hoosiers join them in the league and do so as a first round pick?

Uh, maybe?

Two-thirds of the 31 players (good work, Dolphins!) selected in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft on Thursday night were at least four-star recruits in 247Sports’ ratings. Eight of those 31 players were three-star recruits while two were unranked.

One of those two, Devon Witherspoon, is a familiar face for Indiana. He was on the Illinois defense that fell to Indiana back in the 2022 season opener. But now he’s a millionaire multiple times over as the No. 5 overall pick.

Every member of Indiana’s 2023 recruiting class is rated as a three-star recruit or lower. Indiana currently has zero commitments in the high school class of 2024.

Indiana has shown that it’s capable of signing four-star recruits recently, but ratings have fallen off following consecutive 2-10 and 4-8 seasons after breakout performances in 2019 and 2020. A few members of those more talented classes, including Dasan McCullough and Trevell Mullen, have entered the transfer portal.

So the Hoosiers can’t really bank on landing a high-end talent that’ll make enough plays to show up on scouts’ radars. They’d need to really, really develop the three-stars they sign and hope things work out.

But... can that happen?

Tiawan Mullen looked poised to become one of the top defensive backs not just in the Big Ten, but nationally after strong seasons in 2019 and 2030. A litany of issues, including a few injuries, kept that from happening.

There’s always the possibility of an offensive lineman developing into an NFL-caliber talent. Look at Northwestern four-star Peter Skoronski. But I don’t think I need to tell you what exactly has been going on with Indiana’s offensive line for the past few years.

(Fun fact: Skoronski is the grandson of Bob Skoronski, a Super Bowl champion offensive tackle with the Green Bay Packers and former Indiana Hoosier.)

Indiana has developed some talent, but there’s a definite ceiling. Micah McFadden, currently a linebacker for those same Giants who picked Lewis all those years ago, was the lowest rated recruit in the Hoosiers’ 2018 class. Cam Jones, McFadden’s former partner at linebacker, could very well see his named called too in this year’s draft.

But, entering year seven of the Tom Allen era, only seven Hoosiers have been selected in any of the draft’s seven rounds. None have gone higher than the third round, when Dan Feeney was selected prior to Allen’s first full season coaching Indiana.

The consistency of development just isn’t there. Someone could surprise, though. Cam Camper could breakout, Jaylin Lucas has plenty of potential with his speed or an unknown transfer could burst onto the scene.

But, aside from that, this appears to be a drought that’s gonna stick alongside the growing list of less-than-deal statistics attached to the program’s name.