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NFL Draft 2021: Way Too Early Defensive Badgers Prospects

We know you’re still thinking about it.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 28 Northwestern at Wisconsin
Eric Burrell and Jack Sanborn combine for a tackle.
Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We took a look at the 2021 NFL Draft Prospects on the offensive side of the Badgers roster here.

Now, we take a look at the group led by Jim Leonhard, one of the smartest, up-and-coming coordinators in America. Leonhard is held in high regard by opposing coaches and recruits alike, and is a rising star in the coaching profession. While losing star power like linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr from this defense hurts, there is plenty of depth and talent remaining on the roster for NFL teams to covet this upcoming draft season.

Again, like the offensive side of the football, while the defense lacks a head-liner type of talent, they have a good number of enticing players for the NFL to evaluate.

Garrett Rand, Redshirt Senior, Defensive Tackle, 6-foot-2, 279 pounds

Garrett Rand is one of the more interesting case studies’ in recent UW history. A former 4-star recruit from Arizona, Rand chose Wisconsin over offers from UCLA among others. While he received early playing time, it was as a backup nose tackle at around 275 pounds, certainly not an ideal use of his skillset. He had that role for most of 2016 and 2017, before tearing his Achilles during the summer prior to the 2018 season. He bounced back in 2019, finally at his rightful defensive end position, with 27 total tackles and 3.0 tackles for loss, along with one sack. In his strong side defensive end (tackle) position (3T/4i), Rand does a lot of dirty work allowing his inside linebackers to run free.

Rand projects to an interior defensive line position at the next level, and unless he adds a significant amount of weight (he should if he’s looking to pursue a career at the next level), he’ll be labeled a three technique (outside shade of a guard) only, which limits his value at the next level a good bit, especially considering his lack of explosive athleticism and lack of pass rushing experience at the college level. This 2020 season will be important for his evaluation to simply get to see more of him in a position he should be in.

Prediction: Undrafted Free Agent

Isaiahh Loudermilk, Redshirt Senior, Defensive Lineman, 6-foot-7, 293 pounds

Loudermilk is an intriguing prospect from a size profile standpoint. At 6-foot-7 inches tall and nearly three hundred pounds, he’s not an easy man to miss. A former eight-man football player in a small town in Kansas, Loudermilk has turned into everything UW could have been hoping for when they took a chance on him. In 2019 he had 24 total tackles, 5.0 tackles for loss and three sacks.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 07 Central Michigan at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Loudermilk is an interesting case study because he’s so big, in all honesty. He likely projects as a strong side end in a 3-4 defense at the next level (what Garrett Rand plays at UW, 3T/4i), but he’s mostly played weakside defensive end (5T, outside shade of the tackle) at Wisconsin, along with kicking inside on nickel sub-package rush downs. He’s an odd fit inside, because of his length. Not many real tall defensive tackles stand out in the NFL due to their long arms, which aren’t as advantageous inside. In the confined space on the interior, you don’t have as much space for your arms to get extended. Ultimately, I think Loudermilk will have a chance to get drafted late given his tools, if he has another strong season in 2020.

Projection: Round 7-Undrafted Free Agent

Noah Burks, Redshirt Senior, Outside Linebacker, 6-foot-2, 240 pounds

Burks is the next in a long line of outside linebackers at Wisconsin waiting in the wings, and waiting their turn at an opportunity at more playing time and taking advantage of it. After largely being a rotational player over the last few seasons, Burks broke out in 2019, with 36 tackles, 7.0 tackles for a loss, two sacks and an interception returned for a touchdown against Northwestern.

Admittedly, Burks is by far the least athletically qualified of the last few seasons of Wisconsin outside linebackers, likely comparing the most to Garret Dooley, who was admittedly a bit more stout as a run defender. Burks will likely need some major production this season to warrant anything more than a priority free agent or rookie camp look this season, simply due to a lack of athletic upside. He was a fine player in 2019, but he needs to improve quite a bit to make NFL radars.

Prediction: Undrafted Free Agent

Jack Sanborn, Junior, Inside Linebacker, 6-foot-2, 232 pounds

The highest profile prospect on the Badgers’ defense this season, Sanborn was just announced to be on the 2020 Bednarik Award Preaseason Watch List. Sanborn had a huge season in his first as a starter in 2019, with 80 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, three interceptions, along with one fumble recovered and one forced.

At the moment, Sanborn could use some bulk. Obviously, only a third year player, he has time to accumulate it. Much like Jack Cichy during his time in Madison, he makes a ton of plays but more so on instinct and using finesse, a less translatable way to continue that success in the NFL. From Pro Football Focus’ 2 For 1 Drafts Podcast with Austin Gayle and Mike Renner: “Per PFF, Jack Sanborn missed 14 of his 106 tackle attempts (22.6%) in 2019. His MT% was tied for the 13th-highest among FBS LBs last year.” That’s a concerning percentage of missed tackles, though I’m sure Sanborn would agree it’s an area he needs to improve upon.

I was hesitant to add Sanborn to this list, as Wisconsin’s only two three-year early entrants to the NFL since 2000 are RB’s Michael Bennett and Jonathan Taylor, but Sanborn is certainly already on NFL radars.

Prediction: probably return to school

Caesar Williams, Redshirt Senior, Cornerback, 6-foot, 188 pounds

Williams will enter 2020 as a starting cornerback in a room full of talented cover players. He’ll also be the lone senior in that room. After two years of not playing, he started some games as a sophomore, before starting all 14 games as a junior. In 2019, Williams took a lot of leadership, 35 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and a big interception against Minnesota in the regular season finale.

Williams has the prototypical size for the position that NFL teams covet, however he’ll need to string together another strong season in order for NFL teams to truly take notice. Williams has shown the ability to play both off coverage as well as press for the Badgers, but his hip tightness likely leads to NFL teams looking to use him as a press corner. Allowing him to attempt to disrupt the timing of the receiver will hide his less than ideal change of direction ability in the open field.

Prediction: Undrafted Free Agent

Eric Burrell, Redshirt Senior, Safety, 6’0” 195 pounds

Eric Burrell will be the leader of the Badgers’ defense in 2020. A three year starter, he was finally able to head a very talented safety group. Burrell has played both free and strong safety during his time in Madison for defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, which will help his transition into the NFL given his experience in an NFL style defense. In 2019 he played in 13 games, tallying 55 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, along with two fumbles recovered and forced.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Rose Bowl - Oregon v Wisconsin Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Burrell’s ability to play both safety positions will do him well at the next level. While he’s not an elite level athlete, I don’t believe it will be a liability for him. He won’t win at the NFL level as an athlete, rather his instincts and physicality as a tackler. He’s also shown to be an effective blitzer, as he forced a strip sack recovered for a touchdown against Northwestern last season. He’ll need to earn his spot as a special teamer and as a depth safety.

Prediction: Round 5-7

Other potential NFL targets

Madison Cone, Senior, Safety, 5-foot-9, 192 pounds

Cone had two interceptions in nine games in 2018, but moved to safety in 2019 and had seven tackles. NFL teams could like his versatility, but it’ll likely take a bigger role to get him on radar. He could be a rookie camp candidate.

Collin Wilder, Redshirt Senior, Safety, 5-foot-10, 194 pounds

Wilder, a transfer from Houston, has shown to be yet another versatile safety in the Badgers defensive backfield. He had 19 tackles for 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack in 2019. In a similar situation to Cone, he’ll likely need another season of production to get on the NFL’s radar.