As the 2020 NFL draft approaches at the end of next month, Badgers Jonathan Taylor, Zack Baun, Chris Orr and a few others look to take their talents to the pros and earn a spot on an NFL roster. Each major media platform projects that these three will each get selected to a team, but for the Badgers, who will replace them next season is the bigger question.
Jonathan Taylor and the running back core:
After having another stand out season and earning the Doak Walker award yet again, Taylor has faced mild criticism for his ball security troubles — he fumbled six times last season, including one in a crucial spot during the Rose Bowl.
Along with this, his durability at the next level has also been fairly questioned. With 6,174 career rushing yards on 926 carries, it is understandable to question how much wear and tear could affect his long term success, though Taylor never missed a game with an injury in his three-year playing career.
While this may sound like an irrational fear from the pro scouts after he ran a 4.39 second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, teams can easily point to Todd Gurley as an example of how injury can quickly ruin a top prospect’s capabilities.
Gurley — selected 10th overall by the Rams in the 2015 draft — has played five seasons in the NFL, three of which were Pro-Bowl caliber seasons. The catch is that Gurley’s knees caused him to get cut by the Rams this offseason, two years after signing a $60 million contract extension. There is at least some potential that this could be the case with Taylor after his extensive use throughout his college career with the Badgers.
This offseason, it will be interesting to watch how the running back room shakes out over the coming months. Many expect the backfield to be a group effort with no stand out back on the depth chart. Garrett Groshek is returning for his senior season and will likely be used mainly through the passing game as the most experienced Badger in the platoon.
Also returning is soon-to-be-redshirt sophomore Nakia Watson. Watson struggled last season reading the blockers in front of him when he would relieve Taylor. Yet, he showed some flashes of explosiveness that he needs to keep consistent on every down if he is to become the next premier Badger running back.
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His development this offseason is crucial in deciding his touches for the coming year with such a deep group. On top of this, with Julius Davis and four-star recruit Jalen Berger entering the conversation this season, don’t be surprised if you see some new faces carrying the ball this season.
Chris Orr and the inside linebackers:
In his final season with the Badgers, Orr totaled 11.5 sacks and 78 total tackles, enough to get him noticed and scouted by those at the highest level. A high motor and ability to pursue the ball successfully earned Orr a pro day. Due to Orr being undersized for an NFL middle linebacker at just six feet tall, Orr is largely projected to either get taken in the late rounds or get scooped up by a team after the draft and tryout as an undrafted rookie.
Set to fill the hole Orr left, rising sophomore Leo Chenal has a chance to do everything Orr did and possibly better. In 11 games played last season, Chenal showed off his explosiveness. His physicality and size will give the Badgers’ defense the force they need to fill following Orr’s departure.
Analogous to the quarterback of the defense, Orr was the squad’s leader. Rising junior Jack Sanborn will be able to fill the loss of leadership and potentially serve as a mentor to Chenal throughout the season. Those two should work well together starting, feeding off of each other’s energy and helping fill the spots the other lacks.
Zack Baun and the outside linebackers:
Earning All-American honors and totaling 76 tackles, including 19.5 for loss and 12.5 sacks in just his second year as a starter, Baun’s draft stock rose heavily. Known for his speed and versatility as a pass rusher, his upside is immense. Already rated as ESPN’s number two outside linebacker, Baun would be well served to put on some size without losing his elite speed.
Arguably the deepest position for the Badgers this season on paper, the defense needs one player to step up and fill Baun’s absence. Opposite of Baun, Noah Burks was a solid player, and if he continues to perform at the level he did last season, he will remain a key contributor. There are also two four-star recruits joining the OLB rotation this season in Nick Herbig and Kaden Johnson. If they develop as well as other Badger linebackers in the past, expect these two to see some major playing time this season.
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All things considered, things are looking up for the Badgers, even as they say farewell to multiple key players from their 2019 season. With a bit of development and some reliable Wisconsin coaching, the Badgers could be in for another successful season in the Big Ten and beyond.