College bowl game results suggest the Big Ten has inferior talent. NFL teams say differently.

A Chicago Tribune study revealed the talent in the Big Ten, in NFL terms, is superior to the talent in the Pac-10 and Big 12. The only conferences with advantages over the Big Ten are the Southeastern Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference.

In the last five drafts, 166 Big Ten players were chosen, third highest among conferences. The SEC led the way with 192 players, followed by the ACC with 176. The Pac-10 had 157 while the Big 12 had 143.

If you break it down to first-rounders, the Big Ten also fared pretty well. The conference has had 28 such players in the last five drafts, including one chosen first overall_Jake Long of Michigan by Miami last year. Only the ACC (39) and the SEC (37) have had more first-rounders. The Big 12 and Pac-10 each had 17.

The Big Ten's "specialty" is offensive linemen like Long, Dave Diehl of the Giants from Illinois, Steve Hutchinson of the Vikings from Michigan and Joe Thomas of the Browns from Wisconsin. The conference also has had quite a few cornerbacks and linebackers taken.

On opening-day lineups, the Big Ten also fared better than the Big 12 and the Pac-10. The Big Ten had 105 starters on opening day this season, compared with 70 for the Big 12 and 67 for the Pac-10.

Teams from the SEC had 135 starters and teams from the ACC had 113.

In the last Super Bowl, the Big Ten had better representation than any other conference with 11 starters split between the Giants and Patriots, including Patriots quarterback Tom Brady from Michigan and Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress from Michigan State. The ACC had seven starters, the SEC six, the Big 12 three and the Pac-10 one.

That makes it difficult to explain a 1-6 Big Ten record in bowl games this year (losses to three teams from the Big 12, and one each from the SEC, Pac-10 and ACC), and a 9-20 mark over the last five years.

Colts President Bill Polian, who knows the Big Ten as well as anyone and had five starters from the Big Ten on his opening-day roster, says some of the Big Ten's bowl record could be attributed to unfavorable matchups. In other cases, he pointed out teams from other conferences might have been more excited about playing in a particular bowl than Big Ten teams were.

Polian believes the talent in the conference is comparable to the talent anywhere in the country - with the exception of a handful of dominant schools such as Southern California, Alabama, LSU and Florida.

It's also a factor that talent has been dispersed throughout the Big Ten, whereas in the Pac-10 the talent is more concentrated at USC, and in the Big 12 it's more concentrated at Texas and Oklahoma.

Over the last five years, every team in the Big Ten except Indiana and Michigan State has had at least one first-round draft pick. If more of those players had attended one or two schools, perhaps the Big Ten's bowl record wouldn't be so lopsided.

Quick hits: I have no problem with the Browns hiring Eric Mangini, who had winning records in two of three years as Jets coach. But I do have a problem in the Browns hiring Mangini before they hired a general manager. That is like putting the running back in front of the offensive line.

Great to see Matt Millen broadcasting again. No matter what he did as president of the Lions, there should be no argument he is one of the best football television analysts of a generation.

Goodbye, Pacman Jones. And good riddance.

NFL executives: Chargers' tiny Darren Sproles no full-timer

Given the way Chargers utility man Darren Sproles performed against the Colts, some might think the free-agent-to-be is ready to become a full-time player. But three front-office men who spoke to the Tribune thought differently.

In the Chargers' wild-card round playoff game, Sproles had 28 touches from scrimmage and 328 all-purpose yards. Why couldn't he do that on a regular basis?

Sproles is 5 feet 6 inches and he's listed, probably generously, at 181 pounds.

That's why.

An NFC general manager compared him to Mack Herron, the 5-5, 170-pound running back who played for the Patriots and Falcons in the early 1970s.

"He could start a game, maybe two or three," the GM said. "But to play him as a starter for a whole season? I don't see it."

The most touches from scrimmage Sproles had before last week all season was 16, and he averaged 5.6 per game in the regular season.

An AFC personnel director said Sproles should be capable of about 15 touches per game plus punt returns.

"He will wear down with more than that, and it will take his effectiveness away," he said.

The NFC general manager would be more concerned about Sproles' durability than his effectiveness.

Here is what Colts President Bill Polian thinks:

"Without question he is one of the best performers in the league - a dynamo and a home run hitter. But that pounding week in and week out as an every-down back? No, simply because he won't hold up.

"Here's what happens with running backs in this league. The combination of carries against these brutally physical and fast defenses, and blitz pickup . . . wears them down, hurts them. It physically takes the life out of them, their legs."

Scout talk

Except for the all-star games, the bowl season is complete. The draft stock of a number of players has moved as a result. Here are some of the players who NFL scouts are talking about.

The player who might have helped himself more than anyone was North Carolina junior wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, who subsequently has declared for the draft. Nicks had 217 yards and three touchdowns against West Virginia in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Nicks, who made some great catches and reminded one scout of Hines Ward, might have secured a spot in the first round with his effort.

Two other receivers who also might have moved into Round 1 were Rutgers junior Kenny Britt and Ohio State senior Brian Robiskie. The 6-foot-4-inch Britt applied for the draft after his 119-yard receiving performance in the PapaJohn' Bowl. Robiskie, whose productivity was limited this season because of factors beyond his control, had 116 receiving yards in the Fiesta Bowl.

Robiskie's teammate Beanie Wells had an interesting bowl game as well. One scout said Wells "looked like an absolute beast on a big stage" while running for 106 yards. But another said his concerns about Wells' durability were heightened after he missed most of the second half with a concussion.

An injury to Northwestern defensive lineman Corey Wooten in the Alamo Bowl could influence his draft status. After injuring his knee, the junior might want to think twice about applying for the draft. If Wooten can't work out for scouts before the draft, his stock would suffer.

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Donald Brown's performance in the International Bowl helped convince the Connecticut junior he was ready for the NFL. He said he was coming out after rushing for 261 yards. One scout said Brown might have moved up to the end of the first round.

One of Brown's opponents in the International Bowl also might have moved up, as Buffalo QB Drew Willy performed well. And Sugar Bowl MVP Brian Johnson helped himself with 336 passing yards in Utah's upset of Alabama. Neither player is expected to be picked higher than the fifth round, however.

TCU linebacker Jason Phillips showed he was healthy again in the Poinsettia Bowl, moving himself into second-round territory.