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Wisconsin football: 2010-2019 NFL Draft defensive positional deep dive

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A position by position breakdown of how Wisconsin football has fared with getting scholarship players into the league. First up, the defense.

Minnesota v Wisconsin Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

With four more former Wisconsin Badgers drafted into the NFL across four separate positions mere weeks ago, the timing seems right to take a look back at the recent success rate the football team has had since 2010 in putting players into the league.

Over the past thirty years, the Wisconsin football program has gained significant notoriety for their ability to mold running backs, offensive linemen and linebackers into future pros. While most reasonable college football fans, primarily in Big Ten country, have seen this trend, there hasn’t been a lot of specific data-driven research on Wisconsin’s success.

With that in mind, this week I began wondering what the data might actually look like when comparing the number of scholarship players brought into the program at each position and the number of players who were later drafted after their time in Madison.

To begin this data analysis, I first needed to figure out a process by which to gather the data.

I knew that I wanted to look at more recent years, so I limited the data from the 2010 season (2011 NFL Draft) through the 2019 roster, noting that any player that is still currently on the Wisconsin roster — or the current roster of a different program across FBS or FCS — would not be counted in the data set.

For the sake of this exercise, I only wanted to focus on comparing scholarship players brought into the program with eventual draft results. Therefore, I didn’t think it would be fair to include players who were initially walk-ons as part of the scholarship statistics. The walk-ons who turned into draft picks, would only benefit the drafted numbers as a bonus given that they were not originally included in the scholarship pool, and normally brought into the program to back fill positions for roster depth.

This was a crucial determination given the fact that Wisconsin had nine players who entered campus as a walk-on that eventually were drafted from 2010 to 2019. Those nine players represented just over 23% of the players drafted from the Badgers in that time span.

With the nuts and bolts of how the data was accumulated out of the way, let’s dive into how Wisconsin has fared at turning scholarship level athletes into NFL Draft picks at each position.


Wisconsin v Duke
J.J. Watt has turned into a superstar since his college days at Wisconsin.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Defensive line

Defensive line (2010-2019)

Number of players drafted Total number of scholarship players on campus % of players drafted Players drafted Scholarship signees at the position from 2010 to 2019 (current roster excluded)
Number of players drafted Total number of scholarship players on campus % of players drafted Players drafted Scholarship signees at the position from 2010 to 2019 (current roster excluded)
2 28 7.14% JJ Watt, Beau Allen David Gilbert, Konrad Zagzebski, Warren Herring, Tyler Dippel, Eriks Briedis, Jake Irwin, Bryce Gilbert, Anthony Mains, Jordan Kohout, Pat Muldoon, Louis Nzegwu, Beau Allen, Brendan Kelly, Patrick Butrym, James Adeyanju, Jesse Hayes, Josh Harrison, Arthur Goldberg, Jake Keefer, Chikwe Obasih, Alec James, Conor Sheehy, Billy Hirschfield, Jeremy Patterson, David Pfaff, Kraig Howe, Olive Sagapolu, Keldric Preston

The trenches, on both sides of the ball, have been kind to Wisconsin. However, as dominant as the offensive line has been, the defensive line production has been the opposite in a sense. With only around seven percent of players drafted from the overall scholarship group of defensive line prospects, there is definitely room for growth.

In fact, J.J. Watt was a walk-on at Wisconsin prior to his emergence and overall success in the NFL.

The key to this overall trend though is the scheme in which the Badgers utilize their defensive line. Wisconsin has had tremendous success with linebackers (spoiler alert), and a big reason for that is the role of the defensive line, both previously in the Wisconsin 4-3 at the beginning of the era, and in the more recent 3-4. The defensive line is not called upon to be the primary pass rushers in the Wisconsin system, which has led to a lesser statistical impact by many talented players.

However, Conor Sheehy, Alec James and Olive Sagapolu have stuck around NFL circles after going undrafted. Louis Nzegwu and Ethan Hemer bounced around the league with practice squad opportunities post-collegiate success as well. David Gilbert transferred from Wisconsin to Miami in the latter part of his career, and was an eventual undrafted signee with the Titans.

Arthur Goldberg had a career ending injury that cut his promising career short. Hayes and Kelly each would later switch to more of an outside linebacker role later in their careers, but they were definitely out of position given their fit was more for a traditional 4-3 defensive end.

Overall there has not been a large volume of players who went on to the draft from the defensive line, but that does not diminish the overall success of the position which has helped open up things for the overwhelming linebacker success.

Alabama v Wisconsin
Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert celebrate a big play against Alabama.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Linebacker

Linebacker (2010 - 2019)

Number of players drafted Total number of scholarship players on campus % of players drafted Players drafted Scholarship signees at the position from 2010 to 2019 (current roster excluded)
Number of players drafted Total number of scholarship players on campus % of players drafted Players drafted Scholarship signees at the position from 2010 to 2019 (current roster excluded)
9 21 42.86% Chris Borland, Joe Schobert, Vince Biegel, TJ Watt, Leon Jacobs, Jack Cichy, Andrew Van Ginkel, Ryan Connelly, Zack Baun Culmer St. Jean, Blake Sorensen, AJ Fenton, Kevin Claxton, Cameron Ontko, Cody Byers, Mike Taylor, Chris Borland, Cody Byers, Kevin Rouse, Conor O'Neill, Derek Landisch, Vince Biegel, Keelon Brookins, TJ Edwards, TJ Watt, Nick Thomas, Chris Orr, Garret Dooley, Zack Baun, Andrew Van Ginkel

Much like the offensive line’s value to the offense, the calling card of the Wisconsin defense has been the linebacker position.

The Badgers have had substantial success at the linebacker position over the past 10 years, with a whopping nine players drafted. Those numbers are bolstered by the fact that Wisconsin has utilized four on the field for the better part of the decade, but NINE in 10 years is still amazing. Add in the fact that T.J. Edwards, Garrett Dooley, Blake Sorensen, and most recently Chris Orr were each picked up as undrafted free agents, and that is a large subsection of the defense that has made their way onto NFL rosters.

Wisconsin relies heavily on their linebackers in the 3-4 base defense, and why not? The Badgers have had excellent talent and production from the position. With heightened recruiting efforts over the past few cycles, more NFL caliber talent is on the roster and incoming. The success at the linebacker position is here to stay, as nearly 43% of the players brought in on scholarship wound up being drafted.

It bears mentioning that Kevin Claxton shifted between defensive back and linebacker, but played most of his actual time on the field later at linebacker. Keelon Brookins would finish his career at Northern Iowa, while Nick Thomas left the program early in his career. Mike Taylor was on the practice squad briefly with the Seahawks, but was never the same player after multiple major surgeries. The overall hit rate at linebacker is also altered by the fact that former draft picks Joe Schobert, Jack Cichy and Ryan Connelly were all originally walk-ons.

Michigan v Wisconsin
Nick Nelson was a lockdown corner for Wisconsin in his lone season as a starter.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Cornerback

Cornerback (2010 -2019)

Number of players drafted Total number of scholarship players on campus % of players drafted Players drafted Scholarship signees at the position from 2010 to 2019 (current roster excluded)
Number of players drafted Total number of scholarship players on campus % of players drafted Players drafted Scholarship signees at the position from 2010 to 2019 (current roster excluded)
1 15 6.67% Nick Nelson Devin Smith, Marcus Cromartie, Antonio Fenelus, Niles Brinkley, Terrance Floyd, Devin Gaulden, Darius Hillary, Hugs Etienne, Sojourn Shelton, TJ Reynard, Jakarrie Washington, Derrick Tindal, Titus Booker, Nick Nelson, Serge Trezy

The position in which the Badgers have had the least NFL Draft success in the past 10 seasons has been cornerback at under seven percent. Wisconsin only produced one draft pick in this stanza of time, despite some talented corners on the roster.

To be fair, Marcus Cromartie ended up having a multiple year career in the NFL after going undrafted, and Antonio Fenelus had a shot in the pros as well. Darius Hillary has bounced around practice squad rosters since his time at UW, and played in the XFL after going undrafted. Similarly, Sojourn Shelton has continued to hang around the NFL roster and practice squad fringe after not being taken in the draft.

Bottom line, the cornerback position at Wisconsin has been decent in terms of talent, but there has been a lack of high caliber pick potential on the roster until more recently. Jim Leonhard has improved the cornerback position at Wisconsin over the past couple seasons, and it will be interesting to see if some of the current players can find a home on an NFL roster in the future.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 21 Maryland at Wisconsin
Natrell Jamerson came in a wide receiver and cornerback before finding his eventual footing as an NFL safety.
Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Safety

Safety (2010 - 2019)

Number of players drafted Total number of scholarship players on campus % of players drafted Players drafted Scholarship signees at the position from 2010 to 2019 (current roster excluded)
Number of players drafted Total number of scholarship players on campus % of players drafted Players drafted Scholarship signees at the position from 2010 to 2019 (current roster excluded)
2 19 10.53% Dezmen Southward, Natrell Jamerson Jay Valai, Jameson Wright, Aaron Henry, Paniel Jean, Shelton Johnson, Josh Peprah, Michael Trotter, Dezmen Southward, Frank Tamakloe, Mike Caputo, Reggie Mitchell, Matt Hubley, Nate Hammon, D'Cota Dixon, Austin Hudson, Lubern Figaro, Natrell Jamerson, Arrington Farrar, Patrick Johnson

The Badgers have done reasonably well at the safety position over the past 10 years. Only two drafted players makes up about 10% of the pool of scholarship players that were on the roster during that span, but there were quite a few standouts that also had NFL opportunities after going undrafted. Aaron Henry, Shelton Johnson, Mike Caputo and D’Cota Dixon all were given a shot or, in Dixon’s case, are still having a shot to play professionally. Reggie Mitchell would eventually also have professional looks after he transferred to Pittsburgh as well.

The most interesting part of this group though is that Henry, Peniel Jean, Johnson and Caputo are all currently in upper tier collegiate or NFL spaces as coaches or scouts. That generally speaks volumes to the type of cerebral and talented players that they were.

On the current roster Eric Burrell could get looks in the NFL with another solid season at Wisconsin, and there is a good depth of talented younger players who could also have a future potentially.