How Wisconsin Consistently Produces NFL Offensive Linemen
If you asked the casual football fan about one position that was synonymous with a specific school, Wisconsin’s offensive linemen would be high up on the list. After Barry Alvarez took over the program in 1990, Wisconsin established a physical, smashmouth brand of football which catered to the types of players that the downtrodden Badgers team could recruit within America’s Dairyland. One of the natural advantages of recruiting the state is size at the line of scrimmage.
Since 1990, the University of Wisconsin has had 25 offensive linemen drafted into the NFL, with 22 of them having started games during their pro careers. At the college level, the Badgers have shown success with their 13 All-Americans since Alvarez took over in 1990, nearly half of which were offensive linemen: Joe Thomas, Gabe Carimi, Cory Raymer, Ryan Ramczyk, Chris McIntosh and Aaron Gibson.
So what makes Wisconsin special? What is it about the Badgers’ program that allows them to continually churn out NFL level offensive linemen?
“Coaching,” said Brandon Thorn, who covers offensive and defensive line play for USA Football as well as multiple media outlets. “Everyone playing as one and being on the same page. They’re coached well to see through one set of eyes.” Thorn also stressed that Wisconsin offensive linemen all seem to possess an often forgotten piece of the puzzle in the evaluation. “A clear focus on the fundamentals of the position.” In a time where athleticism is more of an emphasis than ever, Wisconsin continues to pound away at the basics.
While you would expect a school so highly thought of in this regard to have their pick of the litter in recruiting for offensive linemen, some of the more prominent players to come through the Badgers’ program in recent memory have been anything but before their time in Madison. Ryan Ramczyk, a first-round pick of the New Orleans Saints in 2017 who started all 16 games as a rookie, was a Division III transfer from Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Rick Wagner, the highest-paid right tackle in the NFL at the time his contract was signed (now second-highest), was a basketball player in high school and came to Madison as a walk-on tight end. One of the first linemen to set the standard of what the UW offensive line would become was Joe Panos, who was a walk-on at Wisconsin and started 56 games in his career.
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I asked Duke Manyweather, who trains NFL offensive linemen and has worked for multiple media outlets as an offensive line expert, about how Wisconsin has been able to have the level of success with their offensive line despite not recruiting at an elite level. His response: “Wisconsin has traditionally done a great job of recruiting talent from the high school ranks that not only have the physical traits we all get enamored with, such as height, length, weight, power, explosion and athleticism, but they find the players that usually have a very good base of fundamentals and technique.”
This speaks to the developmental prowess of the coaching staff in Madison. Heading into the 2018 season, every offensive lineman on the roster has redshirted, or is redshirting, a reflection of experience that has accumulated at the position. Head Coach Paul Chryst spoke at 2016 Big Ten Media Days about the perception of the offensive line. “You don’t just put on the helmet and become a good lineman. Just because that ‘W’ is on the side, doesn’t mean you’re good.” When Chryst took over the program in 2015, the unit was in a time of hardship, and by the end of his first season, four redshirt freshmen were starting along the offensive line.
Manyweather went on to further explain what helps the Wisconsin offensive line succeed in the NFL: “If all things were equal across the board in terms of physical traits, typically the difference maker can be technique. When we look at it from the ground up: efficient footwork, the ability to create leverage with pad level and with hand usage are all things that traditionally stand out with Wisconsin lineman. Physical toughness and mental processing are all things that typically stand out when watching individual Wisconsin offensive linemen.”
Impressive Track Record
Maybe what is most impressive is the number of linemen the program has produced since 2009, while cycling through multiple offensive line coaches. Bob Bostad ended up in the NFL after the 2011 season. Mike Markuson was fired after only two games in 2012 and was replaced by graduate assistant Bart Miller. TJ Woods was then hired in 2013 before Joe Rudolph (2008-2011 tight ends coach) returned to Wisconsin with Paul Chryst in 2015. Between 2011-2013, the Badgers had seven offensive linemen drafted, one of which who was not a starter. In 2011 alone, Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt, Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Rick Wagner were Wisconsin’s starting five, Bill Nagy was drafted after being a part-time player and Travis Frederick was also a reserve lineman on that team.
This recent trend of Badger offensive linemen turned early draft selections have led to some of the highest contracts in the NFL for offensive linemen:
- Joe Thomas: Retired in 2018, signed an extension in 2017 for $13.5 million for 2018 season, the highest in NFL at time of extension.
- Travis Frederick: Signed a contract (six years, $56.6 million) that ranks third-highest among centers in guaranteed money.
- Kevin Zeitler: Signed a contract (five years, $60 million) that ranked highest among right guards in the NFL at the time of the signing.
- Rick Wagner: Signed a contract (five years, $47.5 million) that ranks second-highest among right tackles.
- Rob Havenstein: Signed a four-year, $32.5 million extension in August of 2018.
On top of that, Ryan Ramczyk was picked in the first round in 2017 and will be in the running for top right tackle money when he is eligible for an extension after his rookie contract.
Manyweather finished our interview with a glowing endorsement of the Badger program. “You know that when you are getting a Wisconsin offensive lineman, you are getting a player that comes from a program that values extensive development of their offensive line. You are getting players that are going to be fundamentally and technically sound, who show efficiency down in and down out.”
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In other words, they really do get everything out of their players, who have the unifying trait of the absence of assigned blame. Their lack of mistakes is what helps them translate college success into NFL success, a level of football in which we measure offensive line talent based on their frequency of failed blocks. Wisconsin's similar blocking concepts to the NFL, at least on the relative scale of college football teams, is just icing on the cake.
Ball-carries like Jonathan Taylor, Corey Clement, Melvin Gordon, James White, and Montee Ball are a few of the recent backs to benefit from the consistency of the blockers in front of them. With that being said, you will miss the forest for the trees if you look at the massive size of Wisconsin’s linemen or the success of the running backs that they block for without noting the consistency of the machine. Heading into the 2018 college football season, at least three more Wisconsin offensive linemen (right tackle David Edwards and guards Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel) will look to be added to the list of Badgers drafted into the NFL. If those prospects are lucky, they will go unnoticed to the untrained eye on their way to eight- or nine-figure NFL careers.