Wisconsin is known as a developmental program, so it’s not surprising to note that the Badgers have had only 10 players forego their final year of eligibility since 2001. It is even rarer for Wisconsin to have at least two players declare early, but was far from surprising following the successes of left tackle Ryan Ramczyk and outside linebacker T.J. Watt during the Badgers’ 2016 season.
A pair of All-Americans who helped Wisconsin go 11-3, win the Big Ten West division and the Cotton Bowl, Ramczyk and Watt became the third pair in the last 16 years to make the leap to the N.F.L. early (joining J.J. Watt (first round) and John Clay (undrafted) in 2011 and Michael Bennett (first round) and Jamar Fletcher (first round) in 2001).
Ramczyk, who will be in attendance for the draft, is projected to be a top-20 pick while Watt has a chance to sneak into the bottom half of the first round. Although Ramczyk and Watt are considered the two headliners for Wisconsin’s draft class, the Badgers could have as many as six players drafted, which would be two more than the two previous drafts combined.
With the N.F.L. Draft starting Thursday in Philadelphia, part one of our two-part feature looks at Ramczyk and Watt and where their professional careers could begin.
Ramczyk’s journey has been well documented. Starting with his indecision on whether or not he wanted to continue his football career after high school, Ramczyk decided to play Division-3 football at nearby UW-Stevens Point, transferred to Wisconsin prior to the 2015 season and become an All-American in his only season of eligibility for the Badgers at left tackle last year.
Ramczyk could be the first offensive lineman off the board Thursday or be selected shortly after Utah’s Garret Bolles or Western Kentucky’s Forrest Lamp, who has the potential to play either tackle or guard. What helps Ramczyk is that this isn’t a strong draft for offensive linemen and teams who have a need at that spot will look to fulfill that hole early in the draft.
Although dominate this past season, what could be hurting Ramczyk’s stock is his post-season hip surgery prevented him from participating in the N.F.L. Combine and doing rigorous individual workouts. The injury shouldn’t prevent him from being ready for the start of a N.F.L. training camp, but his inability to test well in front of scouts, general managers and executives likely impacts his draft spot.
The first potential team that could call Ramczyk’s name is Indianapolis at No.15, but he could be a fit for Baltimore (16th), Tampa Bay (19th), Denver (20th), New York Giants (23rd), Seattle (26th), Dallas (28th) or Green Bay (29th).
If he falls to them, the Giants may be the best option for Ramczyk. The Giants have spent two first round draft picks and a second round pick in three of their last four draft classes to try and upgrade their offensive line. Ramczyk’s ability to be plugged in right away should help solve the problems the Giants have had in the trenches.
In his lone year as the starting outside linebacker, Watt ranked first on the team in tackles for loss (15.5), sacks (11.5) and quarterback hurries (13) and finished third with 63 tackles (38 solo). Despite his limited experience at the position, Watt was able to make a living in opposing team’s backfields, as there were only two conference games where he didn’t register a tackle for loss (he did combine for three QB hurries in those two games).
Watt displayed his athleticism at the N.F.L. Combine by posting a 37-inch vertical jump, 128-inch broad jump and ran a 4.69 second 40-yard dash. One of the questions that surrounds Watt is how quickly can he transition to the pro game due to his limited college experience at outside linebacker. The fact that he picked up the position as quickly as he did shouldn’t be that surprising considering his work ethic put himself in a position to succeed.
With the draft loaded with talented pass rushers, Watt could end up being selected somewhere between the late first round and early second. Watt does have some injury history (knee operations, left shoulder pain) and doesn’t yet have refined pass rushing moves or hand placement, but his bloodlines and high ceiling has many people intrigued.
With teams trying to find as many talented pass rushers to create pressure, a good fit for Watt would be Pittsburgh at No.30. Watt would fit the Steelers culture well and would continue to help upgrade the pass rush, as they finished with 38 sacks over the regular season.