"Way-Too-Early" Thoughts on Wisconsin Prospects for 2021 NFL Draft

Jake Kocorowski

The 2020 NFL Draft saw four Wisconsin Badgers selected in its seven rounds, and another standout in Chris Orr on way to sign with the Carolina Panthers.

The uncertainty surrounding when football kicks back up remains due to the COVID-19 pandemic, along with what lies ahead for those deciding how and when the sport starts. That being said, which UW players could make waves next season should be interesting.

By all means, I am no draft expert like ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. or Todd McShay, or Sports Illustrated's Kevin Hanson, who dedicate their time to the craft of evaluating players and teams. For that matter, there are so many variables that this exercise honestly seems silly just two days after the 2020 edition. 

At times we have seen Badgers projected as "way-too-early" first-round picks a year prior eventually land on Day 3 or go undrafted. At this point last year, would we have seen Zack Baun emerge as a Day 2 prospect after only registering 2.5 sacks in 2018?

On Wisconsin's 2020 spring roster, AllBadgers.com counted 21 total would-be seniors. For now at least, here are a few to think about for next year:

  • Cole Van Lanen: The Green Bay (Bay Port) product instantly comes to mind as someone who could be ready for the NFL after next year. He will enter his final season at UW with 40 games already played (14 starts) and will likely lock down the left tackle position once again. He will also provide leadership to an offensive line group that will have to replace Tyler Biadasz, David Moorman and Jason Erdmann on the interior. Last season, he started 13 games and helped Wisconsin average 233.1 yards on the ground, 200.1 through the air and score over 34 points per outing.
  • Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk: Their personal numbers in 2019 were not eye-popping (a combined 51 tackles, eight tackles for loss, four sacks); however, the fact they stayed healthy last season allowed Wisconsin to regain its form as one of the nation's top defensive units in Jim Leonhard's scheme. For next year, the defensive line will likely be a strength with Rand and Loudermilk, fellow defensive end Matt Henningsen, along with nose tackles Keeanu Benton and Bryson Williams. Could they be called upon not just to clog gaps for their linebackers to make plays, but also get more in the backfield like Alec James did in 2017?
  • Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis: Now with Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor and Aron Cruickshank gone, the two seniors will have more of an opportunity to make a greater impact. Both have shown at times an ability to make deep catches and run the ball with success, but just what roles they assume will be worth keeping tabs on under new position coach Alvis Whitted.
  • Caesar Williams: Williams' most memorable plays came against Minnesota at the start of the fourth quarter inside TCF Stadium on Nov. 30. Two key passes defended near the goal line against new Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Tyler Johnson. He led the team in pass breakups (11) and also tallied 4.5 tackles for loss. In a crowded cornerback room, will he continue his progression?

Others to Watch

  • Eric Burrell: He emerged as the fifth-leading tackler on the team and tied for the team lead in interceptions during his redshirt junior campaign. Like cornerback, depth is also plentiful at safety, but he became a significant contributor in 2019.
  • Jack Coan: This upcoming season, he will not have Jonathan Taylor or Cephus back in the offense, and it will also bear watching how the quarterback room shapes up with Graham Mertz and Chase Wolf having another year under their belt (whenever football starts up). That being said, the quarterback will have tight end Jake Ferguson and the combination of Davis and Pryor returning. He completed nearly 70% of his passes for over 2,700 yards with 18 touchdowns to just five interceptions last season. Does he hold on to the starting job and step up his efficient game even further?
  • Adam Bay: Long snappers can be draft prospects, too? The specialist has played in all 41 games throughout his first three years in Madison. Even if he is more of an undrafted free agent, former Badgers Mike Schneck and Matt Katula carved out long NFL careers along that path.
  • Noah Burks: Baun went from 2.5 sacks in 2018 up to 12.5. Burks' skillset is different from the new New Orleans Saints player, but I will not write him off yet.

What About Underclassmen?

This year alone, Biadasz, Taylor and Cephus all announced their decisions to forego their final year of eligibility to head to the NFL. All were drafted.

For any speculation of Badgers that could take a similar route, Ferguson could be an intriguing prospect at the next level. In two seasons, he has caught 69 passes for 863 yards and six touchdowns. In both 2018 and 2019 seasons, the Madison Memorial product finished second on the team in receptions and displayed the ability to be a key third-down target.

Is it too early to discuss junior linebacker Jack Sanborn? As a second-year player in 2019, he led the team in tackles (80) and tied for first in interceptions (three).

Orr told AllBadgers.com earlier in April that he believed Sanborn will "take another leap forward. I think Jack's gonna have a big, breakout year."

For that matter, The Draft Network currently holds Sanborn and Ferguson as the No. 72 and No. 90 prospects for 2021, respectively.