Going from walk-on to the NFL is not unprecedented at Wisconsin. Jim Leonhard did it as a safety in 2005, joining the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent. He enters his ninth NFL season on the New Orleans Saints roster.
Evolving from walk-on to first-round NFL draft pick? Now that would be a storybook ending for Wisconsin senior receiver Jared Abbrederis, back for his final season after flirting with the idea of going pro over the winter.
Abbrederis was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection last year after leading the Badgers with 49 receptions for 847 yards and five touchdowns. Keep in mind he missed an entire game and parts of two others with injuries in 2012, as Wisconsin pressed three different starting quarterbacks into service.
Abbrederis reportedly put out a feeler to the NFL draft advisory board before deciding in January to return to Madison for a chance to put an exclamation mark on his Wisconsin résumé.
One can only assume that the NFL advised him to hone his skills for another year, a strategy that fellow Badger Montee Ball parlayed last season into a second-round pick with the Denver Broncos.
Abbrederis exhibits ample speed, dependable route-running and a knack for making acrobatic catches with soft hands. At 6'2", he’s a tad taller than the last Wisconsin receiver to get drafted in the first round—6-footer Lee Evans, who went 13th overall to Buffalo in 2004.
Evans owns Wisconsin records for career receiving yards (3,468) and touchdowns (27), numbers that Abbrederis might need to eclipse to put him in first-round NFL draft consideration.
The former walk-on from Wautoma, Wis., has 2,059 yards and 16 receiving TDs through three seasons, and if he leaves the Badgers as the career record-holder in those categories, NFL teams will catapult him up their draft boards.
A first-team all-conference performer as a quarterback and defensive back as a high school senior, Abbrederis also will garner attention from pro scouts for his versatility. He currently owns the Wisconsin record for career kickoff return average (25.8 yards) and ranks third in punt return average (11.2).
He’s also a threat on reverses, carrying eight times for 83 yards (10.4 average) in 2012. He’s one of 44 players on the Paul Hornung Award Watch List, an annual distinction given to the FCS’ most versatile player.
Lauded by CBS Sports as “one of the nation’s top returning wide receivers,” Abbrederis will need a stellar statistical year just to be the top wideout in the conference.
ESPN Big Ten bloggers Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg worry about Wisconsin’s unsettled quarterback situation and run-first approach in naming Indiana’s Cody Latimer (51 receptions, 805 yards in 2012) and Nebraska’s Kenny Bell as their favorites to be the league’s top receiver this season.
Penn State junior Allen Robinson figures to be among the best after leading the league last year with 77 catches for 1,018 yards and 11 TDs.
NFL teams shied away from receivers in the first round of the 2013 draft, as only three wideouts were selected.
For Abbrederis to be among that group in the 2014 draft, the new Wisconsin coaching staff will need to dial his number early and often this fall.
Abbrederis is sure to be the No. 1 target for the Badgers’ yet-to-be-determined starting quarterback—and opposing defensive backs.