MADISON - A pair of Wisconsin products heard their names called in prime time at the 2017 N.F.L. Draft.
Outside linebacker T.J. Watt and left tackle Ryan Ramczyk became the seventh and eighth Badgers in the last 10 years to become first-round picks when they were selected Thursday in Philadelphia. The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Watt with the 30th pick. Ramczyk was taken by the New Orleans Saints with the 32nd pick.
The pair became the 30th and 31st first-round picks in UW history and the sixth and seventh Big Ten players picked in the first round.
Watt started out at tight end at UW, but was moved to outside linebacker in 2015 after suffering a pair of knee injuries. After taking a year to learn the position, Watt led UW in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (15.5) and finished third in tackles (63). He was a first-team All-Big Ten pick.
The first Wisconsin linebacker to be taken in the first round, Watt continues a remarkable family tradition by joining brothers J.J. (Texans) and Derek (Chargers) as Badgers products to be selected in the NFL draft.
"T.J. Watt is somebody we’ve had our eye on since the early fall,” Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert told reporters after the pick. “We are excited to get him. This kid is a solid football player that is really only scratching the surface as a defensive player. We don’t even think he is a complete product at this point, but we are excited about where he can go.”
Earning consensus All-American honors after playing just one season, Ramczyk is the latest in a long line of UW offensive linemen to become first-round picks. His pedigree evidently spoke for itself, as Ramczyk said he spoke with the Saints at the N.F.L. combine but not at Wisconsin's Pro Day. He didn't do any workouts while recovery from hip surgery.
"I think I classify myself as just a hard-nosed tough guy working hard," he told New Orleans reporters. "I go about my business in the right way. I am a team player and I love to do what is best for the team and gets the team winning."
Ramczyk, a consensus All-American in his only season on the field for the Badgers, is the fifth UW offensive lineman to be taken in the first round since 2007. That group includes 10-time Pro Bowler Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns and the NFL's highest-paid center, Dallas' Travis Frederick, and highest-paid guard, Cleveland's Kevin Zeitler.
All told, the Badgers have seen 14 offensive lineman drafted in the last 15 years, and seven former UW linemen earned starting assignments in the NFL last season.
"There is a pretty rich tradition of offensive lineman coming out of Wisconsin," Ramczyk said. "There are some greats and Wisconsin is known for a hard-working football team and that’s what we are and obviously I have some big shoes to fill and to continue that tradition is a pretty cool thing that I’m looking forward to working on."
The pair gave Wisconsin multiple first-round selections for the fifth time, something UW also achieved in 1985, 2000, 2001 and 2011. The Badgers have seen at least one player taken in the first round in five of the last seven NFL drafts.
Overall, Wisconsin has been represented by at least one pick in the NFL draft for 39 consecutive years.
Despite switching positions from tight end just a year earlier, Watt became an All-American at outside linebacker by racking up 15.5 tackles for loss and a Big Ten-leading 11.5 sacks in 2016.
With Ramczyk a native of Stevens Point and Watt hailing from Pewaukee, each of the Badgers' last eight first-round picks have been Wisconsin-born players: Thomas, Brookfield, 2007; J.J. Watt, Pewaukee, 2011; Gabe Carimi, Cottage Grove, 2011; Zeitler, Waukesha, 2012; Frederick, Sharon, 2013; Melvin Gordon, Kenosha, 2015.
All-time, 18 Wisconsin-born UW players have been taken in the first round of the NFL draft.