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Tom Oates: NFL scouts love Badgers' low-risk, high-reward talent

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J.J. Watt photo

Unheralded UW recruit J.J. Watt was named the AP's NFL Defensive Player of the Year three times in his first five years in the league.

A segment of University of Wisconsin fans might not understand or appreciate UW’s reputation as one of college football’s leading developmental programs, but one group out there is thoroughly impressed.

We’re talking about NFL scouts.

UW has been taking 3-star recruits and turning them into 4- and 5-star players for more than two decades, a pattern that is reflected not only in the Badgers’ winning record but in the number of players they’ve had picked in the NFL draft and the success those players have had once they reached the league.

NFL scouts have enormous respect for how UW develops recruits into the best players they can be. Whether it’s weight training, technique work, football IQ or general accountability, the Badgers get high marks from NFL personnel departments. Teams that select UW players know they’re getting NFL-ready performers.

The proof is in the drafting.

Running back Jonathan Taylor, linebacker Zack Baun and center Tyler Biadasz are expected to go in the first three rounds of the 2020 draft, which starts next Thursday. Wide receiver Quintez Cephus and linebacker Chris Orr also could hear their names called in the later rounds and wide receiver A.J. Taylor and guard Jason Erdmann should land in NFL camps as undrafted rookies.

That’s a typical draft for UW over the past 20 years. The Badgers may not recruit off the 5-star lists like Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Southern Cal and a handful of other schools do and they may not have the overall speed and athleticism that those schools have, but they usually make a noticeable impact in the draft.

We already know they make an impact on the scoreboard. Despite recruiting classes that, until the past two years anyway, consistently ranked in the 30s and 40s nationally, UW competes fairly evenly on the field against even the top programs.

UW’s past two recruiting classes under coach Paul Chryst ranked in the 20s, but even that pales in comparison with the teams that are fixtures in the top 10 on the recruiting lists every year. Yet, UW somehow keeps winning on the field, a trend that has withstood the test of time.

The Badgers have 188 victories in the past 20 years, which ties them with Southern Cal and Oregon for eighth nationally behind the usual suspects — Ohio State, Oklahoma, Boise State, Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Clemson — and puts them ahead of traditional powers such as Michigan, Penn State, Florida, Florida State, Miami (Fla.) and Texas.

But while college football has changed dramatically in the past 10 years, things haven’t changed much for the Badgers. Since 2010, UW has 102 wins, which puts it seventh nationally. It has finished the season ranked in the top 13 six times in 10 years.

UW’s performance in the NFL draft reflects both those win totals and how well it is developing players.

In the 20 drafts since the turn of the century, UW had 81 players drafted, which ranks 12th. As for first-round draft picks, UW has 15 in the past 20 years, which ties it with Tennessee for 11th-best. Among Big Ten Conference teams, only Ohio State (131 picks, 31 first-rounders) and Michigan (83 picks) rank ahead of the Badgers in those categories.

UW hasn’t dropped off in the past 10 drafts, either. Its 37 picks overall were tied for 14th and its seven first-round picks were tied for 11th. Only Ohio State (62 picks, 15 first-rounders) and Penn State (38 picks) rank ahead of UW in those categories among Big Ten teams.

Moreover, UW’s drafted players generally have made an impact in the NFL, especially the offensive linemen, linebackers, tight ends and running backs. Of UW’s seven first-round picks since 2010, only offensive tackle Gabe Carimi didn’t have a long career.

The other six hit in a big way. Defensive end J.J. Watt, center Travis Frederick, offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk and outside linebacker T.J. Watt have been named first-team All-Pro, the NFL’s most prestigious postseason team. Running back Melvin Gordon has been to two Pro Bowls and guard Kevin Zeitler was named to the all-rookie team and should have been to the Pro Bowl by now.

Among other early round picks, quarterback Russell Wilson and linebacker Joe Schobert have been to Pro Bowls, offensive tackle Rob Havenstein and linebacker Chris Borland were named to all-rookie teams and running back James White has three Super Bowl rings.

Of the 37 Badgers drafted in the past 10 years, every one played in the NFL. Only five didn’t start at least one game and one of those was punter Brad Nortmann. All four of last year’s draft picks — guard Michael Deiter, linebacker Ryan Connelly, linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel and offensive tackle David Edwards — started games, as did undrafted rookie linebacker T.J. Edwards.

There are reasons for that level of success from a program that has recruited only one 5-star player (offensive tackle Logan Brown) and 29 4-star players in the past 12 years. The Badgers’ offensive and defensive systems have plenty of NFL influences in them. UW players are disciplined, physically developed and very well-coached. They also play in the Big Ten, which means they’re prepared to make an immediate impact in the NFL.

Indeed, UW’s development process just keeps churning out low-risk, high-reward draft picks, something NFL scouts have come to appreciate.

Here's how NFL draft analysts see Wisconsin Badgers' prospects

Contact Tom Oates


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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.

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