The narrative surrounding Wisconsin Badgers running backs in the NFL is changing. The men on this list have helped that happen over the years, but we think one man is going to be a revelation in the coming years.
That one man is Jonathan Taylor.
He’s the newest Wisconsin Badger running back to make it to the NFL. Taylor was drafted 41st overall, in the Second Round by the Indianapolis Colts. Indy traded up to get him and the Colts seem to be the perfect landing spot for him.
Despite his imposing frame, 226 pounds, he was the fastest running back at the 2020 Combine in Indianapolis. Speaking of Indianapolis, he has put up some pretty impressive highlights at Lucas Oil Stadium while starring for the Badgers, too.
He should be plenty comfortable in that building.
Jonathan Taylor surely has the skills to be the Badgers’ greatest all-time NFL running back. But of course we have to wait and see how his career pans out. In 2020 he’ll be in the backfield with newly-acquired quarterback Philip Rivers. When Rivers inevitably retires, Taylor will likely be the cornerstone of the offense as the team rebuilds. What’s encouraging is the Colts have a strong, young offensive line led by an absolute star in Quenton Nelson.
In our opinion, Taylor is, narrowly, the greatest running back in Wisconsin Badgers history. Thus, arguably the best in college football history. One title pretty much captures the other in Madison. The Colts are lucky to have such a dedicated and smart player like Taylor who is blessed with a rare combination of skills. Plus, skipping his senior season has saved him some extra tread on his tires.
Will he jump to the top of this list of Badgers running backs in the pros over the next five or so years? He certainly has a chance. In our opinion, a very good chance. If we were bettors, we’d put money on him taking the top spot on this list at some point. He’s that special.
Enough of the future, let’s take a look back at what we already know.
The phrase “Wisconsin Badgers running backs in the NFL” is certainly loaded. And seemingly everyone, in the Midwest at least, has an opinion on the matter.
It’s a simple, yet convoluted statement. Many people plainly say Badgers backs simply don’t make it in the NFL, despite Wisconsin clearly being “Running Back U.” Nuance be damned, apparently.
That said, there definitely is some sort of disconnect when it comes to the incredible success Badgers backs have in Madison compared to when they play in the NFL. Typically these players (often times record-breaking players) are not able to duplicate the success they had wearing cardinal red and white at the professional level.
Maybe it’s because the competition is stronger, or maybe it’s because their offensive line isn’t as dominant, relatively speaking. However the notion that Badgers backs simply “don’t make it in the NFL” without exception is a garbage trope.
It’s an outdated idea and was never actually true.
Go back to 1954 Heisman Trophy winning back Alan Ameche. “The Horse” parlayed his Madison success into a brilliant NFL career. He was named First Team All-Pro as a rookie, went to four Pro Bowls and won two World Championships. On top of 44 regular season touchdowns, he also scored one of the most important touchdowns in NFL history. He scored the game-winning touchdown in the 1958 title game — “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
Go back even further to Pat Harder. He went from two-time First Team All-Big Ten in 1941-42 to winning the NFL’s MVP trophy in 1948. Along the way he won two World Championships and was named to two Pro Bowl squads. His fame in the NFL came from being a part of the Chicago Cardinal’s “Million Dollar Backfield.” From 1947-49 he scored over 100 points in each season, the first time in NFL history that had occurred. For some reason, he’s not in the Hall of Fame… but he should be.
What about Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch? His athletic ability was so unique that he went from a College Hall of Fame runner to a Pro Football Hall of Fame end (wide receiver).
So please, don’t ever say that Badgers backs haven’t excelled in the NFL since the very beginning.
Yes, as we mentioned the Badgers have had ample success at running back in the NFL, but for this ranking we are going to focus on the Barry Alvarez Era in Madison. It is true that the years between the Badgers’ 1940s-50s success and the Alvarez were lean, even at running back.
Barry Alvarez changed everything for the Wisconsin Badgers, taking over in 1990.
Many of his best running backs, both from when he was Head Coach from 1990-2005 (and a bowl game in both 2012 and 2014) and since he’s been the school’s Athletic Director, from 2006-Present Day, have found themselves on NFL rosters. Badgers backs are finally, routinely getting drafted into the NFL.
Still, it is true that the NFL hasn’t worked out for some truly special Badgers running backs. That list includes Montee Ball (a truly historic college runner), Anthony Davis, Brent Moss and Brian Calhoun, among others. These shortcomings, no matter the fault, have created a false narrative about Wisconsin backs. We suspect it’s fueled by the fans of other college football teams as a ‘revenge’ of sorts for Wisconsin winning all of the collegiate running back awards year after year.
What people fail to realize is that Badgers backs have been starting to have more and more success in the big league. With Taylor now in the NFL and the Badgers recruiting getting stronger by the year with head coach Paul Chryst bringing stability to the team, this trend is only going to grow stronger.
So lets take a look at some of the best ‘modern’ Badgers running backs to play in the NFL.
Lets start with a couple ‘honorable mentions’ of sort:
Corey Clement: Sure, things have been only downhill since his 100 yard receiving performance in Super Bowl LII, but Clement still has a chance to resurrect his career. If he can stay healthy, he has a chance to be a contributor for the Eagles again. He’s, obviously, still very young.
Dare Ogumbowale: We mention Ogumbowale because he had a decent 2019 campaign and has a chance to make a lot more waves in 2020 with Tom Brady as his quarterback in Tampa Bay. We all know how much Brady loves trusting and throwing to former Wisconsin running backs (see below).
Alright, onto the top five runners of the Alvarez Era to go and play in the NFL.
Top Five Wisconsin Badgers Runnings Backs in the NFL (Since 1990):
Obviously if this was an all-time list Alan Ameche and Pat Harder would be on the following list, likely atop it.
5. Terrell Fletcher:
In the NFL, Terrell Fletcher hit the 700 yards from scrimmage mark three times and posted 13 career touchdowns. Never the featured back, he remained a productive player for the San Diego Chargers for eight years, spending his entire career with one franchise. Fletcher, along with backfield mate Brent Moss, helped bring Wisconsin its first ever Rose Bowl Championship in the 1993 season.
He was a better pass catcher than most people realize, having snagged 259 passes in his career. At the professional level, an eight year career is an amazing accomplishment for a running back. To do it at just one location is almost completely unheard of. Fletcher can hang his hat on that. Chargers fans certainly have fond memories of Fletcher.
4. Ron Dayne:
The New York Football Giants selected Ron Dayne to be the ‘thunder’ to Tiki Barber’s ‘lighting.’ It arguably worked for a few years. People act like Dayne was an absolute bust in the NFL, but the man still put up 28 career touchdowns in 96 games (28 starts). Notice the few starts? That’s because he never got to be the featured back by the team that drafted him.
Still, four times he had at least five touchdowns in a a single season and he maintained 4.2 yards per attempt over the last three years of his career. He was a reliable pro and a bruising runner, if nothing else is said about his tenure in the NFL.
Dayne had taken a lot of hits over his four years in Madison and it took a toll on his professional career, no doubt. But so did the situation and franchise that drafted him. The most prolific runner that college football had ever seen went on to put up “just” 4062 total yards in the NFL. One impressive thing about his professional career is that he fumbled only seven times on 1040 touches. The former Heisman Trophy winner won’t be remembered as an all-time Giant, but I don’t think that matters to Wisconsin fans.
3. Michael Bennett:
Michael Bennett tops Ron Dayne on this all-time NFL list because his peak was higher than Dayne’s. Although there’s an argument that the “Great Dayne” should be in the third spot here. In 2002, Bennett was part of a dynamic offense for the Minnesota Vikings (his peak as a professional footballer). That year Bennett boasted a whopping 1,647 yards from scrimmage, which is the most of any modern Badger running back in the NFL.
His career average of 4.4 yards per rush is impressive, but not as impressive as the four separate seasons in which he hit the 5.0 yards per rush mark. Bennett used his elite speed, his truly historic speed, to be a difference maker in the NFL. He ran a 4.13 at the Combine, the second fastest forty in NFL history just behind Bo Jackson.
When Bennett was at his best, he was a threat as a runner and catching passes out of the backfield. However his career was ultimately plagued with inconsistency and he went from team to team before retiring following the 2010 season. Still, his peak helped prove that Badgers runners could absolutely dominate in the NFL.
2. James White:
The greatest pass-catching Badger back of all-time in the NFL is, without a doubt, James White. He’s arguably the best pass blocking running back to come out of Madison, too. He has shown a rare ability to step up as a clutch performer as well. Two Super Bowl victories and three Super Bowl appearances later, including what should have been a Super Bowl LI MVP award, his legacy is secure.
His 32 career touchdowns (40 including the postseason) are incredible because he’s credited with starting just 16 games. There’s been a rotation of backs in New England throughout his career and he’s never been the primary runner, but still, he’s been incredibly effective when he receives his opportunities.
Tom Brady was quoted saying of White, “He does everything right… You can’t ever get mad at him. I’m so proud of him.” Brady has also said, “I’ve played with a lot of great teammates and James is right up there with the best.”
To get that much praise from, arguably, the greatest quarterback of all-time is incredible. It just shows how good of a professional White has been. The thought that ‘Badgers backs don’t make it in the NFL’ just seems sillier and sillier by the year.
His highlights will stand the test of time in the NFL because he’s performed so well on the game’s biggest stage.
In our opinion he led the greatest comeback in NFL history. He scored three of the four touchdowns the Patriots scored in the final 20 minutes of game-time, including the walk-off score in overtime. Not to mention he ran in a crucial two-point conversion, too. Twenty points scored in twenty minutes. Yet he wasn’t named MVP of the game because of, well, you already know.
Even in the Super Bowl loss he suffered against the Philadelphia Eagles he scored a touchdown. In the NFL James just has a certain flair for the dramatic.
And if you want to talk about ball security you start with White. In 78 regular season games he’s fumbled just once.
What’s incredible is that White and the next player on this list were in the same backfield together setting records in Madison. They each rushed for 1,400+ yards in 2013, the first time in NCAA history that has ever happened. And both have become fantastic professional running backs, despite their different styles. “Running Back U” indeed.
1. Melvin Gordon:
Sure, a few pesky injuries and a holdout to begin the 2019 season have hampered Melvin Gordon’s overall production in the NFL, but he’s still put up impressive numbers. Only once in his five year career he’s played all 16 games, so lets bring a little context and take a look at his stats on a per-game basis.
Gordon’s career averaged out over a 16 game span looks like this:
12 total touchdowns, 1,460 total yards, (1,012 rushing yards), 54 receptions and 4.0 yards per rush.
Very few teams would say no to that level of production.
Three times Gordon has posted at least 12 touchdowns in a single-season and three times Gordon has posted at least 1,300 total yards in a single-season. What’s odd is he was named to the Pro Bowl in 2016 and 2018, but not in 2017. In our opinion, 2017 was his most complete professional season. So it goes.
Even in 2019, when he missed four games due to a holdout, he still scored at a 12 touchdown rate (nine in 12 games). When he’s on the field, he’s a difference-maker. Fumbles haven’t been an issue for the runner either (just 14 in his career).
Gordon is, perhaps, the most dynamic running back to ever come out of Madison. In the NFL his explosiveness is just as noticeable. If he can stay healthy for the next couple years, he’ll far and away crown himself as the best Badgers running back to ever play in the pros (modern era). As it currently stands, James White still has a chance to surpass Gordon depending on how the next few years play out.
Heading into 2020 Gordon will still only be 27 years old, so he easily has three to five years left as a true difference maker in the NFL. We know that people, experts and fans, keep devaluing the running back position, but Gordon’s body is built to continue playing in the NFL for years.
We expect a career-year out of Gordon in 2020 as he now plays for a run-heavy team for the first time in his career with the Denver Broncos. We’ll be watching with excitement his every move.
That said, we think he’ll have to continually post some quite impressive stats to keep himself ahead of the man gunning for his No. 1 spot on this list.
That man? 2020 NFL rookie, Jonathan Taylor. Will Taylor find himself atop this list over the next half decade? It might sound premature to be talking like this, but when it comes to Taylor you have to expect excellence.
We hope he tears it up for the Colts and we think he’ll be an incredibly fun player to root for. Thankfully he’ll be playing in the AFC to start his career. Actually the top two backs on this list and Taylor are all in the AFC; for crossover Badgers/Packers fans that’s a dream come true.
To be honest, we cannot see Taylor not making a Pro Bowl in the next couple seasons. Our bet is he becomes the first modern Badger back to be named First Team All-Pro in the NFL (sooner than later).
It’s up to Taylor to continue the trend of Badgers backs succeeding in the NFL and, perhaps, he’ll start a new narrative about Badgers backs being the best backs in the NFL.
If anyone can accomplish this, it’s Jonathan Taylor.
We will update this article in a few years and we have a distinct feeling that the Badgers’ latest record-breaking back will be listed quite highly.