The University of Wisconsin has a rich football tradition as one of the oldest teams in the Big Ten, and along the way has produced some terrific NFL talent. A handful of players have gone on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and set records at the top level of football. Let’s take a look at the Badgers that put together the finest NFL careers.
Before we get into the list, let’s take a look at some of the Badgers that just missed the cut as part of our honorable mentions: Troy Vincent, Tim Krumrie, Chris Chambers, Travis Frederick, and Paul Gruber.
5. T.J. Watt
As you can probably guess, there is more than one Watt on the list, and it begins with outside linebacker T.J. Watt. T.J. spent four seasons in Wisconsin, and in his senior season, was named to both the All-Big Ten and All-American teams. Considered by some to be undersized, Watt was selected late in the first round, with the Steelers taking a chance on him at 30th overall in 2017.
Watt almost instantly became a perennial All-Pro, and even tied the single-season record for most sacks with 22.5. Watt was also named the 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and continues to rack up the accolades. By the time his career is over, there’s a chance that Watt could end up having the more impressive resume in the family.
4. Mike Webster
Hailing from Rhinelander, Wisconsin, Mike Webster spent the early 1970s in Madison and played center for the Badgers until 1974. After being named to two All-Big Ten teams, Webster was selected in the fifth round of the 1974 NFL Draft (125th overall) by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Webster spent most of his 17-year career with the Steelers and was named to the All-Pro Team in nine of those seasons. Webster was also a four-time Super Bowl winner and was named to Pittsburgh’s All-Time Team, as well as two different NFL All-Decade Teams.
3. Joe Thomas
Joe Thomas is the highest-rated player on the list that spent their entire college career with the Badgers, and he was named a two-time First-Team All-American. During his senior season, Thomas was also an All-American and was given the Outland Trophy as the best offensive lineman in the nation. At the 2007 NFL Draft, the Cleveland Browns made Thomas the third overall pick.
Thomas would end up becoming one of the best left tackles in NFL history and certainly the most durable. Thomas set the record for most consecutive snaps played in league history and was a 10-time Pro Bowler, as well as an eight-time All-Pro. Unfortunately for Thomas, the only downside of his career was never reaching the postseason.
2. Russell Wilson
Russell Wilson may have only spent one season with Wisconsin, but it was quite the season as he was named to the first-team All-Big Ten squad and was the Griese-Brees Quarterback of the Year. Wilson wasn’t expected to do much in the NFL when he entered in 2012, however, as the Seahawks used their third-round pick (75th) overall to have him back up Matt Flynn.
Wilson assumed the starting role right away with the Seahawks and spent 10 seasons with the team. During that time, he compiled an impressive 104-53-1 record, throwing for 37,059 yards, 292 touchdowns, and 87 interceptions. Wilson also added 4,689 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns en route to nine Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl title.
1. J.J. Watt
J.J. Watt had initially gone to Central Michigan University, but the Chippewas wanted the walk-on from Pewaukee to become a tight end. After spending just one year in Mt. Pleasant, Watt made his way to Wisconsin to become a defensive end. As a Badger, Watt became a first-team All-American and won the Lott Trophy, leading him to be selected 11th overall in 2011 by the Houston Texans.
Watt spent 10 seasons with the Texans and was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year on three occasions. Watt finished his Texans career with 101 sacks before signing with the Arizona Cardinals in 2021, and Watt has also been named an All-Pro six times and was the 2017 Walter Payton Man of the Year.