I sat down to watch some fresh coaches' copy tape earlier this week and spent some time scouting Wisconsin in preparation for the Rose Bowl, and here are the impressions I came away with about the Badgers' top prospects.
LT Gabe Carimi
He's a better overall player now than the one I saw during preseason film evaluation. Carimi continues to improve his technique, especially his hand use, and he playing more under control and with better balance. In terms of athleticism in pass protection he's a notch below Jake Long when Long came out of Michigan, but Carimi is a very strong run blocker and at the very least will be a starting right tackle as an NFL rookie.
Carimi's run-blocking prowess is about more than power. He has impressive awareness, takes good angles to the point of attack and has the ability to help both the tight end and left guard. One play that stood out in particular was a 14-yard touchdown run by Badgers RB John Clay in the first quarter of Wisconsin's win over Ohio State. The play began with the defensive end head-up over Carimi, who passed the end off to LG John Moffitt at the snap and got to the second level and locked on to Buckeys MLB Ross Homan, himself an NFL prospect.
Carimi drove Homan so far back and to the outside that they took an Ohio State safety with them, and Clay cut off the block and walked into the end zone essentially untouched. It was one of the most impressive plays I've seen from an offensive linemen all season with Carimi essentially taking out three defenders by himself.
The overall offensive tackle class is not great and some think Colorado's Nate Solder and Boston College's Anthony Castonzo have more upside than Carimi, but you know what you're getting from Carimi. He projects in the mid-to-late first round and is ready to become a very good starting right tackle from Day 1, and he could possibly move to the left side in time.
DE J.J. Watt
He's not an elite athlete and does not have an great first step, but Watt's awareness is as good as any defensive lineman I've seen this year. He diagnoses plays quickly and does a great job using his hands to keep bigger blockers off his frame, and he continues to add wrinkles to his arsenal of pass rush moves.
That allows him to work the edge and use his impressive closing burst to get to the quarterback. He has the kind of closing burst that most great NFL pass rushers possess, and when Watt is in position to make plays he finishes them.
His matchup against massive TCU OT Marcus Cannon (6-foot-5, 361 pounds) is one of the more intriguing individual battles in any bowl game this year in my mind. Cannon moves well for his size, has decent balance, and he has long arms and is very strong up top, but he is limited in terms of mirroring and sliding with pass rushers. It will be interesting to see if Watt can use his quickness and violent hands to stay off Cannon in space. If not it will be all over because Cannon has more than 100 pounds on Watt and if he is able to lock on it will be lights-out.
Watt moves from one side of the defense to the other and we'll know early on who's getting the better of the matchup. If Watt is exploiting Cannon's limitations the Wisconsin coaching staff will keep him on that side, but if Cannon is able to get to Watt and control him look for Watt to flip-flop because the Badgers need him to get after Horned Frogs QB Andy Dalton in order to slow down the TCU offense. Watt grades out in the second round at this point because he is not quite an elite athlete, while Cannon gets a third-round grade and will likely move to guard in the NFL.
He's undersized and won't fit every NFL scheme but Kendricks fights hard as a blocker and plays bigger than his measureables. He's not a great athlete with seam-stretching speed, either, but he runs good routes and shows good instincts.
Perhaps most importantly, Kendricks makes tough catches in traffic and can snatch the ball out of the air away from his frame. The 2011 tight end class is one of the weakest in recent history and that gives Kendricks a chance to come off the board late on Day 2 despite his physical limitations.
RB John Clay
He's a big back (6-1, 248) and there's a lot to like about his physical, no-nonsense approach. Clay is a hard one-cut-and-go runner who lowers his shoulder, looks for contact and churns out extra yards on nearly every carry. However, I don't know what he does for a team in today's NFL.
The biggest question about him as runner is whether he has the lateral quickness to get in and out of holes and avoid NFL defenders. He doesn't appear to be anything more than a change-of-pace back who can spell the starter, and in that case scouts look for two other things: what can he do on third down and what does he offer on special teams. Unfortunately for Clay, he doesn't have much potential in either area.
He's only a junior but with two good backs -- James White and Montee Ball -- behind him and nagging injuries piling up it wouldn't surprise me if Clay enters the 2011 draft. No matter when he comes out, though, he'll likely have to make an NFL roster as a Day 3 pick.
He clearly benefits form playing next to Carimi, but Moffitt is a solid player. He's limited athletically but shows decent awareness, and while he'll never be an elite guard in the NFL it won't surprise me if he comes off the board in the middle rounds and becomes a very good backup or adequate starter.
WR Nick Toon
Toon is also a junior and would do well to return to school, but he is an intriguing prospect who runs good routes and knows how to do the little things it takes to succeed at the next level. His production will never be great because of Wisconsin's run-heavy offense and the fact that the Badgers run mostly two-receiver sets and rotate their wideouts, but Toon did have 16 receptions over the last four games of the regular season.
He's not a vertical threat but he runs well after the catch, and if he enters the 2011 draft he's likely a mid-round prospect. However, if Toon returns to school and continues to develop I could see him locking down a spot on Day 2 of the 2012 draft.