With lockout finally over, Tolzien, Clay, Gilreath, Brinkley find new homes
MADISON - It was no surprise to fans who witnessed Wisconsin's record-setting 2010 season that five Badgers were selected by NFL teams in April's annual draft.
Four players from UW's machine-like offense, including three linemen, landed in the league. Defensive end J.J. Watt, who passed up his senior season at Wisconsin for a shot at the NFL, was drafted 11th overall by the Houston Texans. He was one of two Badgers who went in the first round, in addition to offensive lineman Gabe Carimi, who the Chicago Bears took with the 29th overall selection.
Tight end Lance Kendricks is a St. Louis Ram after that team took him off the board in the second round. The Seattle Seahawks used their third-round pick on guard John Moffitt, while the Dallas Cowboys liked enough of what they saw from Bill Nagy in a reserve role with the Badgers to spend a seventh-round pick on the Ohio native.
But there were also several Badgers who didn't hear their names called on draft day, including some who were remarkably productive during their careers at Wisconsin.
In a normal year, these undrafted free agents would know soon after the end of the draft whether any team had an interest in taking a chance on them.
But because of the NFL lockout, which began in March and finally ended Monday, teams have not been allowed to sign undrafted free agents until this week. For many players, it has been a difficult four months filled with uncertainty about the future.
Today, at least a few Badgers are breathing sighs of relief, as their dreams of making it in the NFL are still alive.
After the jump, let's take a look at the UW football players who have signed with teams as undrafted free agents.
QB Scott Tolzien - The 6-2, 212-pounder, who went 21-5 as a college starter, reached an agreement with the San Diego Chargers today. Tolzien posted the highest completion percentage of any quarterback in the country in 2010 and won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. He ranked fourth nationally in passer rating and had a stellar 16-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Still, NFL teams were not overly enthusiastic about Tolzien. He doesn't have a big arm and he succeeded at UW mainly by making smart decisions with the football and by completing short and intermediate passes with accuracy. He is much better throwing from the pocket than he is on the run. Without much of a deep ball or the ability to scramble, Tolzien was not viewed by most teams as an NFL starter.
Nonetheless, Tolzien figured to be one of the first undrafted Badgers signed after the lockout. There isn't a whole lot of quarterback depth in the league and Tolzien is experienced, accurate, smart and durable. The Chargers are set with Philip Rivers as their starter, but they have no one behind him and Tolzien could be a capable backup.
RB John Clay - As a Washington Park High School player in Racine, Clay looked like a sure-fire future NFL running back. But despite leaving UW with a year of eligibility remaining, Clay went undrafted and agreed to join the Pittsburgh Steelers today. Clay was a productive running back at Wisconsin, rushing for at least 5.4 yards per carry in each of his three seasons. His best year was 2009, when he piled up 1,517 rushing yards and scored 18 touchdowns. Clay again broke the 1,000-yard barrier in 2010 and played a key role in wins over Ohio State and Iowa.
Despite his productivity, concerns about Clay's weight, durability, age and mental makeup kept him from hearing his name called on draft day. He missed the last three games of 2010 with an MCL injury and will turn 25 in January. Clay appeared out of shape at times during his career at UW and his 4.77 time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine was pedestrian.
Clay could thrive on the Steelers, though. Pittsburgh loves to build a lead and then give the ball to a big, bruising back who can move the chains in the fourth quarter. Jerome Bettis made a pretty nice career doing that for the Steelers, and Clay could be counted on in the same role. Pittsburgh is loaded in the backfield, however, so Clay will need to have a good camp in order to stick.
WR and KR/PR David Gilreath - Gilreath will sign with the Indianapolis Colts after a solid four years at Wisconsin. Gilreath made his biggest mark on special teams, where he emerged as a dynamic return man. His return of the opening kickoff for a touchdown against Ohio State propelled the Badgers to their biggest victory of 2010. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst liked to use Gilreath on end-around plays to get the speedster into the open field.
Gilreath did not put up huge numbers as a receiver in Wisconsin's offense, but he was a reliable target. At 5-11 and 169 pounds, he lacks ideal size for an NFL wideout.
The Colts, with Peyton Manning leading the way, have turned much less prolific receivers than Gilreath into stars. Indianapolis is the perfect destination for a wide receiver. The Colts probably also figure to try Gilreath out on special teams.
CB Niles Brinkley - Brinkley is expected to join Clay on the Pittsburgh Steelers. After struggling early in his career, Brinkley became a solid corner for UW. He recorded six interceptions in three seasons with the Badgers. Last year, he forced a fumble and made 49 tackles.
Brinkley is a bit of a project for the Steelers, who traditionally boast a strong secondary.
Other former Badgers who went undrafted but have used up their eligibility at UW include WR Isaac Anderson, WR Kyle Jefferson, LB Culmer St. Jean, LB Blake Sorensen and SS Jay Valai. We will have the story here at B5Q as soon as any of those players sign with NFL teams.
B5Q wishes all former Badgers the very best of luck as they pursue careers in the NFL and elsewhere.