Four-down territory: The Illini and the NFL draft

Apr. 25—He won't go No. 1 like Jeff George in 1990. Or No. 5 like Devon Witherspoon did last year. But it seems likely Johnny Newton will hear his name called at some point during Thursday night's first round of the NFL draft. Here's more on Newton and other Illini draft tidbits, via Sports Editor Matt Daniels:

All eyes on Newton

More than a decade has passed since an Illinois defensive tackle got picked in the NFL draft, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking Akeem Spence in the fourth round of the 2013 draft with the 100th overall pick. If Johnny Newton lasts to pick No. 100 this year, something has gone drastically wrong. Newton, who compiled 52 tackles and 71/2 sacks last season en route to Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors, isn't an overwhelming choice to go in the first round, though. Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN didn't have Newton in the first round of his latest mock draft two weeks ago, while Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network has Newton going 28th to the Bills.

What other Illini could go?

The second and third rounds take place Friday, with the fourth through seventh rounds unfolding throughout much of Saturday. It doesn't appear Illinois will have three players drafted in the first three rounds like they did last year with Devon Witherspoon, Quan Martin and Sydney Brown, but Saturday should have a handful of former Illini gripping their cell phones anxiously. Offensive lineman Isaiah Adams has versatility that could appeal to NFL teams, while tight end Tip Reiman presents a big frame and some surprising athleticism. Wide receiver Isaiah Williams, defensive tackle Keith Randolph Jr. and offensive lineman Julian Pearl are also possible late-round picks.

Trending in right direction

This is the fourth NFL draft with Bret Bielema in charge at Illinois. So far, the first three drafts have produced nine former Illini picked in either the first, second, third, fifth, sixth or seventh rounds (strangely, no fourth-round picks in that time span, for what it's worth). If Illinois can keep its string of multiple picks going another year, it'll mark the most fruitful period for the program when it comes to producing NFL players since 19 players were chosen from 2009 through 2013, with at least three Illini chosen during those five straight years. For comparison's sake, the 2014 through 2020 drafts only saw five Illini chosen and none in the first round.

Silver linings playbook

Illinois will have several players sign undrafted free-agent contracts once all 257 picks are chosen by the time Saturday night arrives. Two former Illini serve as shining examples of this process. Tommy DeVito wasn't among the 259 players chosen in the 2023 draft, but the quarterback ended up signing with the Giants and starting six games last season, becoming the toast of New York for 15 minutes. Justin Hardee didn't hear his name called among the 253 picks in the 2017 draft, but is entering his eighth NFL season. He has carved out a special teams niche, first with the Saints and then with the Jets before signing this offseason with his hometown Cleveland Browns.