After a seemingly unceasing offseason, the NFL regular season is finally upon us. It’s an exciting time to be a football fan, as every team boasts at least a few dynamic players and almost every squad has some semblance of playoff hope. The 2020 NFL season will see established veterans attempting to cement their legacy, and a hungry and talented class of rookies looking to burst onto the scene. Among these players are many former Badgers in varying situations, looking to make or uphold their names in an increasingly balanced, competitive league.
T.J. Watt, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers, 25 years old
What better place to start than the Watt brothers? When T.J Watt was picked 30th overall by the Steelers in 2017, some called him a one-year wonder and the selection a reach. That take has turned freezing cold as he was easily one of the biggest steals of the draft. Watt has racked up 34.5 sacks over his first three years and had 10 takeaways last year. His motor is always humming and he has a wicked punch that pops the ball out of unsuspecting ball carriers’ hands — 8 forced fumbles in 2019. While they won’t be as unsuspecting now, T.J Watt spearheads the pass rush of the Steelers’ goon squad defense. Watt finished 2019 third in Defensive Player of the Year voting and now has the chance to stake his claim as the league’s most dominant defender in 2020 on what should be a title-contenting Steelers roster.
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans, 31 years old
After barely being recruited coming out of high school and then forgoing his tight end scholarship at Central Michigan to walk-on at the University of Wisconsin, J.J. Watt would become simultaneously one of the most likable and terrifying defenders in the NFL. A three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Watt has already left his legendary mark on the league and has accolades for days. What he’s missing? A super bowl ring, something that Texans head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien also might need in the next couple years if he’s going to keep his job. After a series of questionable moves, headlined by trading away all-world wideout De’Andre Hopkins, the Texans find themselves with a generational talent at quarterback in Deshaun Watson but not much else. But if Watt can stay healthy, he should at least hit double-digit sacks like he has in every 16-game season he’s played since 2012, which would go a long way in pushing Houston towards the playoffs in a crowded AFC south.
Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks, 31 years old
Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson and the Seahawks load up for yet another year of playoff relevance and a run at the title. It doesn’t seem to matter who inhabits the Seahawks roster each year, as long as DangerRuss is under center. Seattle completed a blockbuster trade to acquire safety Jamal Adams to shore up the back end of their defense in the offseason. While the Legion of Boom is no longer, the roster looks strong enough to reach the playoffs despite a perilous trek through the NFC west. Wilson has been-there-done-that targets in Tyler Lockett and Greg Olsen, not to mention second year freak of nature D.K Metcalf. Seattle remains committed to the ground game, which might not be the worst idea as Wilson has been sacked 99 times over the past two seasons. With the right side of the offensive line looking awfully suspect, expect even more Houdini-esque plays from Wilson this year. The Seahawks are contenders as long as Wilson is on the field, but they’ll be scary if the players around him rise to the occasion.
Melvin Gordon, RB, Denver Broncos, 27 years old
After five productive albeit lackluster seasons with the Chargers, Melvin Gordon finds himself on a suddenly loaded Broncos offense. Whether or not you believe in the cocky, second-year gunslinger Drew Lock, the rest of the offensive talent is undeniable. Defenses have to respect the Denver passing attack awash with dangerous receivers, which should open up plenty of rushing lanes for the former Doak Walker award winner and 2015’s 15th overall pick. Currently listed as co-starters on the depth chart with Phillip Lindsay, Gordon’s bruising style should compliment Lindsay nicely and keep defenses guessing. It’s hard to envision Gordon topping a thousand yards as the two backs will likely cap each other's carries, but as the bigger, more physical back, expect Gordon to be the guy on goal-to-go situations. Ultimately, Gordon and Lindsay should keep each other fresh and keep the ground game potent, which is great news for a Broncos offense that’s been stagnant since the days of Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas.
Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts, 21 years old
The third running back off the board in the 2020 NFL Draft, Jonathan Taylor somehow enters the league with a chip on his shoulder after a heroic college career. Taylor dashed for nearly two thousand yards as a freshman and never looked back, leaving the rest of the Big Ten in the dust. Prolific would be an understatement to describe his career as a Badger, and now he lines up behind one of the best offensive lines in football. While the Colts have plenty of young weapons to throw to, offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni will likely rely heavily on the ground game to take pressure off the aging arm of Phillip Rivers. This coupled with the fact that the Colts’ starting tailback Marlon Mack is done for the season with a torn achilles should mean big things for Taylor’s production. And if Taylor conjures up a few breakaway runs early like he did many times as a Badger, it’s going to be hard to keep him on the sideline.
Ryan Connelly, LB, Minnesota Vikings, 24 years old
After being drafted in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL draft by the New York Giants, Connelly begins his sophomore campaign listed as a backup on the Vikings depth chart to longtime starters Eric Kendricks, Eric Wilson and Anthony Barr. In his rookie season, Connelly logged two picks in back to back weeks before he tore his ACL and was declared out for the season. Minnesota boasts a very technically sound defense, led by mind-reading safety Harrison Smith and lighting fast pass rusher Danielle Hunter. For a young, raw player such as Connelly, this is an ideal system to participate in and learn from. It’s also an encouraging sign for Connelly that a respected defense that runs like a well-oiled machine liked his tape enough to roster him. If Connelly can display the same coverage skills that he did early in his rookie season, he’ll get his shot when the starters need a break or when the vikings sub out their base defense. Minnesota has a solid, established roster headed into 2020 that will contend for the division once again. Connelly should find his role as a key defensive depth piece who could morph into much more if he plays well when his number is called.