Draftniks, rejoice. The 2013 NFL Scouting Combine began on Wednesday and workouts will commence on Saturday through the weekend in Indianapolis. Naturally, we have several former Wisconsin Badgers to keep our eyes on.
By my count, there are seven Badgers with at least a puncher's chance of getting drafted. Most notable, of course, are running back Montee Ball and early-entrant center Travis Frederick. The latter's departure from UW with another year of eligibility was somewhat surprising, but with Wisconsin also losing its offensive centerpiece in Ball, a new coaching staff coming in and yet another quarterback competition looming this spring, Frederick can't really be blamed.
Left tackle Ricky Wagner is in Indianapolis as well, and his status is one that particularly interests me. Of course, Ball's casted a sizable shadow over the other departing Badgers. Even Frederick, the cerebral fan favorite, hasn't generated much buzz lately. Granted, much of that is probably a linemen thing.
Anyway, Wagner was considered a cornerstone left tackle for so much of his four years at Wisconsin, but now he's widely tabbed as a late-round pick. Could he be a late climber as a result of that, as well as perhaps the pedigree of former Badgers linemen? We'll find out.
Here are capsules for each of the aforementioned four Wisconsin prospects. We'll have much more throughout the lead-up to the draft here on B5Q.
RB Montee Ball (5-foot-11, 212 pounds)
Strengths: Ball's draft stock owes mostly to the 83 touchdowns (77 rushing) and 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist lines on his resume. But as a runner, Ball thrives with superb vision and cut-back ability. He also doesn't shy away from contact -- he brings it on, as indicated by the countless number of defenders he's planted into the ground via a perfectly-timed lowered shoulder. While his top-end speed might not be superb, Ball's shown enough quickness to recover from contact and stretch medium-length runs into larger plays. Ball is also a willing pass-blocker, and as a receiver, he has natural hands and an ability to fluidly adjust to balls in the air, haul them in and keep churning downfield.
Weaknesses: Again, Ball's never been known for his top-end speed and it would be surprising to see his 40-yard dash time wow anybody. Ball is also a smaller running back [Ed. note: another "undersized" Wisconsin prospect!] who had nearly 1,000 carries and 60 receptions in college. Ball can be shifty, though his agility is not quite elite. His strengths as a power runny with enough mobility to occasionally break-away from runners doesn't necessarily bode well in a league that's become increasingly anti-early-round running back over the past several years. Ball also suffered two concussions (at least -- he had his bell rung vs. Michigan State in 2011, though a concussion was never confirmed), the first of which was suffered in an offseason assault. Ball was also cited for trespassing at the Mifflin Street Block Party in May 2012, eliminating some of the momentum developed by his remarkable junior campaign.
NFL comparisons: Stevan Ridley, Terrell Davis, Curtis Martin
Pre-combine draft stock: Mid-round pick (Rounds 3-5)
C Travis Frederick (JUNIOR -- 6-foot-4, 312 pounds, 33" arm length, 10" hands)
Strengths: Talent aside, Frederick has Wisconsin's offensive lineman pedigree behind him as he begins meeting with teams. Kevin Zeitler, Peter Konz, Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt are a few of the more recent Badgers to have reached the NFL, and of course there is always All-Pro lineman Joe Thomas in Cleveland. As NFL.com notes, Wisconsin has had 14 linemen drafted since 2000 -- the most of any school in the country. Frederick obviously has the size to play pretty much anywhere on professional o-lines, though he will almost assuredly remain an interior lineman. Frederick is a cerebral football player who was responsible for setting Wisconsin's offense upfront, and his dual math and engineering degrees should impress scouts in interviews. Physically, Frederick has a strong upper body and knows how to get his hands up quickly and help his neighboring guards in pass protection. Like most Wisconsin linemen over the years, he also moves his feet well and is a solid anchor to drive blockers forward.
Weaknesses: Given his size, Frederick isn't the most fleet-footed lineman. Blitzers up the middle can give him trouble, and his balance isn't always as solid as it should be.
NFL comparisons: David Baas, John Moffitt
Pre-combine draft stock: Early-round pick (Rounds 1-3)
OT Ricky Wagner (6-foot-6, 308 pounds, 34" arm length, 9 7/8" hands)
Strengths: Wagner was likely hurt by the all-around drop-off Wisconsin's offense endured in the post-Russell Wilson era. By means of injury and inefficiency, the Badgers cycled through three quarterbacks this season. The offensive line also absorbed a brunt of criticism, though first-year line coach Mike Markuson took the brunt of it and was fired after just two games. All of that likely diminished Wagner's draft stock, though he remains an incredibly strong lineman. Wagner is naturally excellent as a run-blocker, leaping off the snap well and using his hands to move defensive ends off the line. Wagner can also hold his own against larger defensive tackles, and he is quick enough to block laterally across the line. A determined blocker, Wagner also works to sustain plays by preventing secondary rushes.
Weaknesses: Wagner's earned a reputation -- perhaps unfairly -- for being an "effort" lineman that relies more on hustle than skill to get by. While he holds his own against defensive ends, Wagner can be exposed by rushers exploiting the inside lane to the quarterback. Wagner plays a bit too high, creating slight balance issues and allowing stronger defenders to rip by him. With the perception of his slow-twitch movements, Wagner may begin his NFL career as a right tackle.
NFL comparisons: Breno Giacomini, Michael Otto
Pre-Combine draft stock: Mid-round pick (Rounds 3-5)
LB Mike Taylor (6-foot-2, 222 pounds)
Strengths: Taylor fought through a variety of injuries over his four years at Wisconsin, relying heavily on tremendous football instincts to consistently form one of the Big Ten's top linebacking corps alongside Chris Borland. He recorded nearly 400 tackles in four years, eclipsing the 100-tackle mark as a junior and senior and notching 150 in 2011, which ranked third in the NCAA. Taylor is fundamentally sound, playing with solid pad level and bend, and using his hands to rip off blockers. He does have the quickness to exploit open lanes to the backfield, though he'll rarely be mistaken for a natural pass rusher. In pass coverage, Taylor can read a quarterback's eyes and hustle to any given spot.
Weaknesses: Again, those injuries figure to scare a few teams. At his size, Taylor lacks a true position and will garner the dreaded "tweener" label. He'll assuredly have to bulk up to handle not just NFL linemen, but tight ends, as well. Taylor's hustle and awareness compensate for his lack of elite quickness, though premier ball-carriers will exploit him.
NFL comparison: Dan Connor
Pre-Combine draft stock: Late-round pick (Rounds 5-7)