Updated June 14, 2018
By Charlie Campbell. Follow Charlie on Twitter @draftcampbell.
In keeping with a series looking ahead to 2019, I caught up with scouts who have done advance work on the 2019 class. While the majority of NFL scouting departments have their meetings in the month of April to finish their draft boards ahead of the impending NFL Draft, some team scouts are on the road traveling to college campuses to start work on the draft that is a year away. These scouts share their player ratings with scouting services like National and Blesto. Almost every team in the NFL is either a member in National or Blesto, with more teams a part of National. In May, the Blesto teams, including the Bills and Steelers, met in Florida to go over 2019 NFL Draft prospects. In continuing the series, this week's topic is the impressive linebacker talent that resides in Madison, Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin program has been known for being a steady factory of offensive line and running back talent for the NFL. The Badgers' juggernaut rushing attack was established by Barry Alvarez in the 1990s and has stayed consistent in the 13 years since Alvarez retired. Over the past few years, Wisconsin has fielded a tough defense, and the proram currently is establishing a new tradition of producing good linebacker talent for the NFL. T.J. Watt and Jack Cichy were drafted during the past two years, and sources say that Wisconsin could have a banner year with the 2019 NFL Draft. On watchlists circulated among NFL teams, all three Badger starting linebackers have graded to have first- through fourth-round potential next spring.
Perhaps the top prospect of the trio is middle linebacker T.J. Edwards. Edwards is an instinctive defender who is a physical presence in the tackle box. He also is dangerous in zone coverage, consistently putting himself in position to make plays on the ball. As a junior, he recorded 81 tackles with 11 for a loss, two sacks, seven pass breakups and four interceptions. Edwards was too good to keep on the bench and worked his way onto the field with Watt and Cichy.
With Watt playing for the Steelers last fall, outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel helped fill the void, totaling 6.5 sacks with 10 tackles for a loss coming off the edge. Sources project Van Ginkel to have the potential to be an impressive workout player as well, plus their 40-yard dash projection has Van Ginkel running around 4.70. Van Ginkel could be even better with a year of experience.
The other outside linebacker, Ryan Connelly, also had an impressive 2017 season, contributing in a variety of ways for the Badgers. For 2017, Connelly totaled 88 tackles with 11 tackles for a loss, three sacks, one pass broken up, one forced fumble and one interception. The 6-foot-2, 237-pounder has a good build with some speed. Team projections have him running a fast 4.65-second 40-yard dash.
Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has drawn compliments for running a defense that correlates well to the NFL. Leonhard played for a lot of good defensive coaches during his career with the Bills, Ravens, Jets, Broncos, Saints and Browns, and he has used parts of those schemes in Madison. Thus, the linebacker trio is receiving good preparation for the professional level schematically. According to team sources, the trio of Wisconsin starting linebackers all have the potential of going in the top half of the 2019 NFL Draft according to team watchlists.