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Badgers in the NFL: GMs should give ‘em a chance

There is a better than average chance that if you sign a Badger as an UDFA you’re going to find a diamond in the rough.

Las Vegas Raiders v New York Giants
Alec Ingold has been a valuable piece for the Raiders.
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

About two weeks ago, we saw five Wisconsin Badgers selected in the 2022 NFL Draft. There were also seven former Badgers that were signed to undrafted free agent deals, and one other given rookie minicamp tryout opportunity from this year’s class. With rookie minicamps starting to take place last weekend around the league, I think it’s a great time to revisit some of the recent Badgers who have found success in the NFL despite not hearing their name called on Draft Day. This is also my argument to general managers for giving any Badger a chance.

Let’s start with a few who aren’t currently in the NFL but who still had careers that are worthy of mention in this post.

Jim Leonhard 2005-2014

Leonhard had a 10 year NFL career. He was undrafted in 2005 and despite only being 5-foot-8, he is one of the greatest stories to ever come out of the Wisconsin Badgers football program. From college walk-on to NFL starting safety, he played in 142 games in his career and started 73 of them. He embodies what being a Badger is all about and continues to do so as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator.

Jonathan Casillas 2009-2017

Casillas played in 102 NFL games over the course of eight-year NFL career. He ended up starting in 48 games, recording 385 combined tackles, and winning two Super Bowls. His greatest moment came in Super Bowl XLIV when he helped recover the surprise onside kick to start the second half. Just a Badger making a Badger play.

Chris Maragos 2010-2017

Chris Maragos went undrafted in 2010 before being signed by the San Francisco 49ers. His primary role in the NFL was as a special teams player but there is no reason to shrug at that because playing 1,993 special teams snaps is no easy feat. Especially with the amount of talent that is coming out of college every year.

Philadelphia Eagles v San Francisco 49ers
Chris Maragos (left) with two other former Badgers, Chris Borland (center) and Beau Allen (right).

Every NFL team needs a cornerstone player on special teams and Maragos provided that for the Seattle Seahawks and the Philadelphia Eagles. Badgers like Maragos make plays regardless of their role on the team.

Now let’s move on to some players who are still active.

Alex Erickson 2016-

Erickson has been a special teams returner for six years now. He spent five years with the Cincinnati Bengals and one year with the Carolina Panthers. Over the course of his NFL career, he’s averaged 8.5 yards per return on punts and 25 yards per return on kick returns. He’s now entering his seventh year and will be a member of the Washington Commanders while hoping to carve out a similar role. Right now, Erickson is the longest active wide receiver from the University of Wisconsin since Lee Evans.

Corey Clement 2017-

Clement has been in the NFL for five full season. He began his career with the Philadelphia Eagles and is now a member of the Dallas Cowboys. During his rookie year in Philadelphia he scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl and was the player who took the snap play that is known as the Philly Special before handing it off.

Super Bowl LII - Philadelphia Eagles v New England Patriots
Am I, as the editor of this site, using Nick’s article to post pictures of the Eagles? Well,,,
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

He also is one of two running backs to have 100+ receiving yards in a Super Bowl. The only other player to do so was fellow Badger, James White.

Dare Ogunbowale 2017-

Dare! After spending two years on practice squads to start his NFL career, he has found his way into productive roles in his last three seasons. Now, he’ll enter his sixth year in the NFL playing for the Houston Texans who originally signed him after going undrafted in 2017. His career high for total yards from scrimmage was in 2019 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when he had 303 total yards. Not bad for a former Badger walk-on who continues to find ways to to beat expectations.

TJ Edwards 2019-

Edwards went undrafted in 2019 but was signed to a UDFA deal after the draft with the Philadelphia Eagles. His first year he only played 112 snaps on defense for the Eagles but the last two years (2020 and 2021) he has played 490 and 685 snaps.

Philadelphia Eagles v New York Jets
Are the Eagles just too smart for the rest of the NFL? Signing all of these under-the-radar Badgers makes it seem like...maybe.
Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Steady improvement for his NFL trajectory. He also earned Special Teams Player of the Week in Week 5 of 2021. He recently signed a one-year extension with the Eagles through the 2022 season.

Alec Ingold 2019-

Ingold was undrafted in 2019 but then went on to spend his first three years of his career on the Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders. He earned a spot on special teams and as a fullback, where he managed to carve out a regular role in the raider running and goal line offense until he suffered a knee injury halfway through the 2021 season. He is now a member of the Miami Dolphins, where he’ll likely have an expanded role as a fullback similar to that of Kyle Juszczyk who is a member of the 49ers. Juszyck was coached by Mike McDaniel, the new head coach of the Miami Dolphins.

To me, this list is impressive and it speaks to the character of the Wisconsin football program. Every one of these players on this list made a tremendous impact on the program during their time in Madison but all of them were overlooked and undervalued before being given an opportunity to make a roster or practice squad during training camp.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots
Dare Ogunbowale is well-traveled and is now back in Houston, where it all started for him in the NFL.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

From an outside perspective and as a fan of the program, it feels like the underdog mentality has shaped some of the best teams and players this program has ever seen. Whether they are drafted or undrafted, the players NFL teams get from Wisconsin are always cut from the same cloth and can be counted on in whatever role they end up playing so why not give a Badger the opportunity?

Hopefully guys who are still unsigned from this year’s class get their own chance and can prove themselves like the players who have come before them.