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10 things to know about Wisconsin Badgers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois and Wisconsin square off in the Illini’s homecoming game. Here are some interesting facts to know about the Badgers and Illini matchup

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It’s Homecoming in Champaign, where they claim to have formally started the tradition almost all colleges participate in these days. However, the Badgers are looking to spoil the Illini’s party and continue an undefeated start to the 2017 season.

While on paper this seems to be a big mismatch, what do the deep stats and tidbits about this series tell us?

Let’s look in to the 10 things to know about the Badgers vs. Illini for this Saturday’s contest.

 

1: Wisconsin is No. 1 in the Big Ten in run defense

This could be a big advantage for the Badgers on Saturday afternoon in Champaign. UW is giving up just 88 yards per game on the ground this season, which tops the Big Ten. Wisconsin is just one of two Big Ten and nine teams nationally giving up fewer than 100 yards per game. Only Alabama, Washington, TCU and Georgia are ahead of the Badgers in run defense so far this season. Meanwhile, Illinois comes in to this game dead last in the Big Ten in rushing offense at 118.7 yards per game.

2: That is the number of quarterbacks Illinois have been using for most of the 2017 season.

For a large part of the season it was Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr., but with a youth movement all over the field, last week the Illini took the training wheels off of true freshman quarterback Cam Thomas. After George struggled to start the game, Thomas came on in the hopes of sparking something. That didn’t really happen, as Thomas finished the game just 2 of 4 passing for 33 yards and an interception. He did add 79 yards on 10 carries on the ground, but he’s got to add something in the pass game if Illinois has a shot against the Badgers. However, George did finish last week 18-of-23 for 128 yards and one TD…so maybe the two-quarterback system could work going forward?

3: That is the number of times opponents’ drives that have started inside UW territory have resulted in a touchdown

Wisconsin’s defense has been stellar all season, but perhaps the most impressive part of what the Badgers are doing is their ability to come up big with their backs against the wall. Opponents have started in UW territory 10 times this season, with only three of those possessions ending in touchdowns. Last weekend, Maryland started at Wisconsin’s 5-yard line and got nowhere, settling for a field goal.

4: Illinois ranks 4th in the country in blocked kicks this season

If there’s a way for the Illini to change things up in what appears to be a mismatch on paper, a good way would be getting a turnover or something spectacular on special teams. One area that could be helpful to them is in their kick coverage teams, as they’ve blocked three kicks already this season and the Badgers have had a few blocked on them as well. Only Hawaii (5), Army (4) and Utah State (4) have more blocked kicks on the year. Illinois’ .43 kicks blocked per game rank fourth nationally, and you can bet they know UW has shown weakness in this area already this season.

5: That is the number of receiving touchdowns for UW wide receiver Quintez Cephus this season

After seeing early playing time as a freshman last year, there’s been no sophomore slump for Cephus. Instead, the Badgers have found a go-to wide receiver and a touchdown machine. Cephus leads the Badgers with five touchdowns on the year and ranks tied for fourth in the Big Ten for receiving touchdowns on the year. He’s only two off the lead shared by D.J. Moore of Maryland and Tyler Johnson of Minnesota. Cephus also leads the team with 25 receptions (tied with TE Troy Fumagalli) for 448 yards as well as the five touchdowns.

6: Illinois top running back averages 6.1 yards per carry, but will he play?

While the Illini offense has struggled to get going, one man jumped off the page early and that was true freshman running back Mike Epstein. He leads the team with 346 yards and has three touchdowns on the ground. Epstein has put up those numbers on just 57 attempts in five games played to date. But, he has missed the last two games and there’s been little word on if Epstein will be back in the lineup against the Badgers. If so, look for RaVon Bonner to be the main running back for the Illini.

7: It took just 7 games for UW freshman running back Jonathan Taylor to hit the 1,000-yard mark, tying the true freshman record for fastest to 1,000 yards in a season. 

Just how good has Taylor been? He cracked the 1,000-yard mark before 44 different FBS teams have even hit that mark. Taylor comes in to the Illinois game with 1,112 yards and 11 touchdowns on the year. He’s first in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game, rushing yards and is the only Big Ten rusher in double digits on the TD front. Illinois run defense has been brutal all season, as Lovie Smith’s team ranks dead last in rush defense — giving up just over 210 yards per game to opponents. So, we have a massive advantage for Wisconsin’s run defense and offense. I’m sensing a pattern that may be established in this game.

8: Wisconsin is going for victory No. 8 in a row over the Illini on Saturday

UW currently owns a seven-game win streak in this series, including three straight in Champaign. Wisconsin’s former house of horrors has been kind for the most part recently, as the Badgers have won 5 of the last 6 games in Memorial Stadium as well. Illinois’ longest win streak in the series has been six games, but they led the overall series until the Badgers started this current win streak. Right now the series sits 40-336-7 in favor of the Badgers.

9: Illinois is converting on 90 percent of its red zone opportunities in 2017

That’s an impressive rate on paper, putting the Illini third in the Big Ten in conversion rate on offense. However, the devil is in the details here, as only 10 of the 18 converted possessions have ended in touchdowns and the full six points. Illinois rate of 50 percent for touchdown conversions is 13th in the B1G, while the eight converted field goals puts the Illini second only to Michigan this season. Combine that news with the fact that Wisconsin only allows opponents to convert TD’s inside the red zone at 27.7 percent (tops in the Big Ten), and that’s another not-so-good news scenario for the hosts on homecoming.

10: Wisconsin is 10-1 in true road games under Paul Chryst

The Badgers’ lone loss on the road came against Michigan last season, a 14-10 decision. If you include neutral site games, the Badgers are an impressive 13-3 away from Camp Randall Stadium under Chryst. Illinois is not Michigan in terms of quality to say the least, but it should be worth noting that UW seems to have also played better on the road than at home so far this season as well. So far, the Badgers won 40-6 over BYU and 38-17 over Nebraska, breaking the Huskers’ 20-game night win streak inside Memorial Stadium.

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5 Badgers to to know after Spring practice

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Believe it or not, we’re almost out of the month of April and that means the end of the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers spring football practices.

Despite the lack of a true spring game or real media hype there was a lot to learn from the 15 just-completed practices over the course of the last month.

Some of what we learned came to names that flashed that we maybe didn’t totally see coming as spring ball began.

So, let’s look at the 5 names to watch the most following spring practice.

Leo Chenal, ILB

All the talk coming in to spring was about another early entrant, but by about halfway through the 15 practices, there was only one name that everyone was talking about — Leo Chenal.

The younger brother of John Chenal burst on to the scene in a major way at inside linebacker. So much so that it’s going to be really hard for the Badgers coaching staff to keep him off the field.

He was a force in the run game and showcased good hands with multiple interceptions over the course of spring ball.

When coaches single you out for praise in interviews, you’re doing something right…especially if that coach is as tight-lipped as Paul Chryst is.

Chase Wolf, QB

All the talk coming in to spring revolved around Jack Coan and Graham Mertz. Well, you can add a third name in to the mix as redshirt freshman Chase Wolf had himself an impressive spring.

The former 3-star recruit is used to being in the shadows, having backed up a former 5-star recruit for most of his high school career. Instead of backing down from the challenge, he rose to the occasion and earned himself the scholarship at Wisconsin.

He again rose to the challenge this spring and proved he has the arm and athleticism to do something different with this offense should the coaching staff want to go that route.

I’m not saying Wolf is going to win the starting job, but what I am saying is that this is far from a two-quarterback race according to those who saw spring practice.

Brady Schipper, RB

Everyone knows that Jonathan Taylor is UW’s RB1. But, who will back him up is perhaps the biggest question mark at the skill positions. While it’s likely that Nakia Watson and Bradrick Shaw will get the first cracks, one could argue the most eye-opening offensive performer this spring was Schipper.

The walk-on out of Stoughton appears to have something that the others don’t have at this point. His power is so different and his ability to see the hole is natural.

Don’t be surprised to see Schipper fighting for snaps in relief of Taylor this fall.

Alexander Smith, CB

Good luck really figuring out what the pecking order looks like at cornerback coming out of spring. That isn’t a bad thing though, and largely it is due to the high level of competition there.

One of the more consistent competitors was Alexander Smith, who played well when forced in to action as a freshman last year. Luckily the Badgers didn’t burn his redshirt, but his time on the field last season seemed to pay off this spring.

He was always around the ball and showed good instincts overall. Add in some decent recovery speed and Smith wound up as a player who gave himself more reps in fall. What he does with those will go a long way in deciding just how much he contributes at cornerback when the games matter.

Aron Cruickshank, WR

Wisconsin needs to get more speed and more separation out of its wide receivers. One person that can provide that in spades could be Cruickshank.

He spent last season largely running as a decoy or on gadget plays. This spring, Cruickshank showed he had more to his game and could be a major weapon in the pass attack this year as well.

Whatever he can add to a solid group like AJ Taylor, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor will be a bonus. But, he could be a matchup nightmare for defenses. Spring ball showcased that in a big way.

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Guessing the Badgers depth chart post-spring

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Spring football came to a quick and uneventful end on Friday. Now that we’ve had some time to digest what the coaching staff has had to say and what reports have come out of spring camp, it’s a perfect time to address the depth chart.

Did anyone jump to a starting role that we didn’t expect or what about underclassmen showing they belong?

We’ll look at each position and give your our best guess on where things stand heading out of spring ball and in to the fall.

Quarterback

  1. Jack Coan
  2. Graham Mertz
  3. Chase Wolf
  4. Danny Vanden Boom

Spring Observations:

We honestly have no idea where this position really stands, largely because this was the first time in a long time in which there wasn’t access to just about every practice. So, did the Badgers show something different behind closed doors?

From what the media was able to see, Coan appeared to take the vast majority of the first-team snaps this spring. Whether that was a test to see where he stands or a by-product of inexperience behind him, we simply do not know.

The good news behind Coan is that both early entrant freshman Graham Mertz and redshirt freshman Chase Wolf competed well in large chunks of the open spring practices.

If either of them can up their game heading in to the fall, we could see a very interesting situations unfold heading in to the first game at USF.

Running Back

  1. Jonathan Taylor
  2. Nakia Watson
  3. Bradrick Shaw
  4. Garrett Groshek
  5. Brady Schipper

Spring Observations:

This group didn’t make much noise in the spring and that is alright when you have one of the most prolific running backs in college football history in your backfield.

A lot was expected out of redshirt freshman Nakia Watson in terms of stepping up to be the backup. I’m not sold that the coaching staff was all too happy with any of the running backs and here’s why — Isaac Gruenedo and Brady Schipper were seeing a ton of reps.

To their credit, both showed some good things when given their opportunities, but both have a long way to go to be on the level of Taylor.

Watson appeared to be the most consistent option behind Taylor, but he still has some growth to do as an inexperienced redshirt freshman. Meanwhile, we really don’t know what’s up with Bradrick Shaw as he attempts to come back from some awful injury issues.

Fully expect to see Taylor, Watson, Shaw and Groshek (as the 3rd down back) in the mix this fall.

Wide Receiver

WR1:

  1. Danny Davis
  2. Kendric Pryor
  3. Taj Mustapha

WR2:

  1. AJ Taylor
  2. Aron Cruickshank
  3. Jack Dunn

Spring Observations:

Given the quarterback battle that is ongoing, the wide receiver group got a ton of reps this spring as well. The top of the depth chart was pretty much set in stone with Danny Davis, AJ Taylor and Kendric Pryor the top three options.

But, the biggest jump this spring came from Aron Cruickshank, who showed he could be more than a gimmick in the offense. He looked good in the slot and most importantly, showed much more crispness in his route running and that means he could be a very dangerous weapon in the deep passing game.

Overall, this group did well in spring and don’t be surprised to see younger names like AJ Abbott and Taj Mustapha make a run at serious playing time. In fact, Mustapha may have already put himself in the mix for snaps this fall.

Tight End

  1. Jake Ferguson
  2. Luke Benzschawel
  3. Hayden Rucci

Spring Observations:

To say this position was less than spectacular this spring would be an understatement. Ferguson is great and will continue to be the top target at this position, but what is behind him should give plenty of opportunity to the pair of incoming freshmen to say the least.

Benzschawel continues to show promise, but can’t stay healthy enough to be a reliable option just yet. Gabe Lloyd got a lot of playing time this spring, but wasn’t great.

Thus, I believe we’ll see at least one of Hayden Rucci or Clay Cundiff making their mark felt. Right now, I’m leaning towards Rucci being the more college ready player heading in to the fall and most likely to be called upon if they have to.

Depth at this position is a massive concern for a position that is crucial to success for the offense.

Offensive Line

First Team:

LT: Cole Van Lanen
LG: Kayden Lyles
C: Tyler Biadsz
RG: David Moorman
RT: Logan Bruss

Second Team:

LT: Tyler Beach
LG: Josh Seltzner
C: Jason Erdmann
RG: Michael Furtney
RT: Logan Brown

A lot of the starting pieces were missing this spring thanks to injury or recovery from offseason surgery and with all the transition happening up front that may actually have been a blessing in disguise.

The Badgers coaching staff got a good look at a lot of inexperienced but quality options on the line and it appears that some spots were locked up thanks to quality play.

One of the most consistent performers was senior David Moorman, who played both guard and tackle on the right side with the first team offense. Ultimately, I believe his best spot is inside, but he’s versatile enough to kick outside too.

What could be the most interesting battle this fall will be between incoming 5-star offensive lineman Logan Brown and Logan Bruss, who started six games this past season.

If there was one observation to take away from the spring it was that despite all the turnover, there is a lot of talent waiting their turn once again on this offensive line. That wasn’t the case just a few short years ago.

Defensive Line

First Team:

DE: Garrett Rand
NG: Bryson Williams
DE: Isaiahh Loudermilk

Second Team:

DE: Isaiah Mullens
NG: Gunnar Roberge
DE: Matt Henningson

Spring Observations:

The good news coming out of spring is that starters Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk appear healthier and ready to contribute in 2019 in a major way. Rand still has some work to do physically, but was nearly 100 percent come the end of spring ball.

Add in the fact that Mullens Roberge and Henningson did some good work in major snaps this spring and you have a much stronger defensive front than UW had at any point last fall.

The interesting part will be when the freshmen enter the mix in the fall. Could any of them get in the mix?

Outside Linebacker

First Team:

ROLB: Zack Baun
LOLB: Christian Bell

Second Team:

ROLB: Noah Burks
LOLB: Izayah Green-May

Spring Observations:

We didn’t get to see Christian Bell much in spring and he was eventually shut down. But, you can fully expect him in the mix come fall. In fact, I’m not sure anyone outside of Noah Burks will challenge him for the starting spot opposite of Baun.

Speaking of Zack Baun…this was a monster spring for him, as he showed major improvement and big time leadership on and off the field. He could be the most impressive player to come out of spring ball amongst the entrenched starters.

But, the player I’m most intrigued to see get some reps in the fall is Izayah Green-May. He’s a matchup nightmare with his length and athleticism just by stepping on the field. But, this spring, the youngster appeared to have the lightbulb go off and that could be mean some nice playing time this fall.

Inside Linebacker

First Team:

ILB: Chris Orr
ILB: Jack Sanborn

Second Team:

ILB: Mike Maskalunas
ILB: Leo Chenal

Spring Observations:

Replacing T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly — the latter of which was picked in the just-completed NFL draft — was never going to be all that easy. But, a renewed effort from senior Chris Orr and a whole lot of talent behind him suggested the Badgers will be just fine at inside linebacker.

Orr was flying around a lot in spring ball, having cut some serious weight. But, the real name that stuck out from the crowd was actually an unheralded early entrant named Leo Chenal.

He impressed so much this spring that he may have already locked in a spot in the two deep before the Badgers even broke camp. He showed vision, athleticism and a nose for the football that will make him valuable in sub packages at the very least come fall.

I love what I’ve heard about this group all spring long.

Cornerback

  1. Caesar Williams
  2. Deon Harrell
  1. Faion Hicks
  2. Rachad Wildgoose
  3. Madison Cone

Spring Observations:

Coming in to spring ball, this group was the biggest wildcard on the team — and that was because so many players got experience last season it was nearly impossible to figure out how they stacked up.

That may still be the case, but someone has to start on paper and in the game. The good news is that there were six solid performers this spring and UW would be good to have any one of them start. The bad news is that there wasn’t really anyone outside of Williams that separated from the crowd.

Much more will have to done in the fall to figure this group out, but I’ll take competitive play over a set-in-stone depth chart at this point of a season.

Safety

FS1: Eric Burrell
FS2: Reggie Pearson Jr.

SS1: Scott Nelson
SS2: Colin Wilder

Spring Observations:

Unlike the cornerback position, the Badgers coaching staff likely knows the pecking order at both safety spots following spring ball. Eric Burrell and Scott Nelson looked like a great starting tandem, while both Wilder and Pearson provided quality competition.

This is as close to a lock for the depth chart as you’ll see anywhere on this roster if you ask me.

Kicker

Collin Larsh

Spring Observations:

There is little doubt about who will take over the field goal kicking duties now that Rafael Gaglianone is graduated. Larsh looks like a great get for the program as a walk-on and could be a reliable asset to the team, which Gaglianone just wasn’t following multiple back issues and surgeries as his career went on.

Punter

Anthony Lotti

Spring Observations:

It appears Lotti has settled in after a rough first year as the main punting option for this team. His steady improvement and consistency will be important in 2019 and spring proved that he could be much more consistent according to the coaching staff. You have to like that kind of reporting.

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What is being said about Badgers 2019 NFL draft picks

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The three-day marathon of picks and commercial break after commercial break is over. For four now-former Wisconsin Badgers football players, their NFL dreams came true.

Leading the way was offensive lineman Michael Deiter, who went to the Miami Dolphins with the No. 78 overall pick and the No. 15 pick in the 3rd round.

He was the lone Badgers representative from Wisconsin in the first two days. In fact, we had to wait until the fifth round to hear the next name off the board.

Linebacker Ryan Connelly was next, with the New York Giants picking him in the No. 5 spot in the fifth round (No. 143 overall). He was followed up by outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel in the same round, going No. 151 overall to the Miami Dolphins. He’ll join Deiter in Miami, hopefully helping to make the rookie transition a bit easier for the pair.

The final of three Badgers to go in the 5th round was offensive lineman David Edwards, who went No. 169 overall to the Los Angeles Rams. He’ll get to join former Badgers offensive lineman Rob Havenstein.

But, getting picked is just one step in the journey to an NFL roster spot come the fall. Before we get there, let’s take a look at what was said about the four Badgers as they were picked this weekend.

Michael Deiter

NFL.com: He’s a mauler. He’s played a lot of football at an offensive line factory in Wisconsin. — Daniel Jeremiah

ESPN: When you have obvious needs at three different O-line positions, it can’t hurt to draft an O-lineman whose position could be tabbed: All. The dude started an incredible 54 games in college. The Dolphins allowed a Pass Block Win Rate (see: pressure allowed in under 2.5 seconds) that had them 24th in the NFL last season. Deiter is part of more work to be done up front. — Chris Sprow

Ryan Connelly

NFL.com: Connelly is an ideal depth fit for defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s scheme. He can play inside in either 34 or 43 packages. — Mark Dulgerian

Bleacher Report: Connelly is a stout, tough middle linebacker who played through a torn abdominal muscle last season. He’s solid between the tackles and when handling the coverage basics, but Sean Payton would start drooling uncontrollably if he saw Connelly matched up in man coverage on Alvin Kamara. Connelly projects as a two-down linebacker who leaves the field on passing downs, meaning he faces an uphill battle in today’s NFL. But he’s a former walk-on, so he knows all about uphill battles. Connelly is your typical Giants linebacker prospect: a high-effort guy who is not all that great. Grade: C

Andrew Van Ginkel

NFL.com: New head coach Brian Flores is taking over a Dolphins team that generated pressure at the 4th-lowest rate in the league last season according to Next Gen Stats. Van Ginkel has the athleticism and motor to help on that front. — Mark Dulgerian

Bleacher Report: Van Ginkel recorded 12 sacks for the Badgers over the last two seasons and intercepted two passes in 2017. He’s versatile, athletic and hustles, with a tiny bit of pass-rush razzle-dazzle. He feels like a reach, but the Dolphins need depth everywhere and may see him as a multiposition sub at linebacker. Grade: C

David Edwards

NFL.com: Offensive line depth was a soft spot on an other-wise loaded offense last season. Edwards is still growing into the position both technically and physically, so he likely won’t compete for significant reps until next year. — Mark Dulgerian

Bleacher Report: Edwards was a high school quarterback, and his quick-footed athleticism is evident on tape. His technique was all over the place last year, but he was playing through a shoulder injury that may have limited him or forced him to overcompensate in his sets, balance and hand usage. Edwards is a high-upside project who could conceivably be coached into a starting NFL left tackle. He’ll compete with third-round pick Bobby Evans for the right to be Andrew Whitworth’s heir apparent. Grade: B

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Badgers in the 2019 NFL Mock Drafts

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Believe it or not, we’re just three weeks away from the start of the 2019 NFL Draft. While, it’s likely your focus is on your favorite NFL team, its needs and who will go where, for fans of college football it’s also a time to sneak a look at where their favorite players will be going.

So, as we near the draft, I thought it a perfect time to take a look at where every former Badgers player stands. We’ll look at some of the most comprehensive 7-round mock drafts.

Making our cut were CBS Sports, Draft Wire, Draftteck and Walter Football.

Without further ado, let’s jump in in alphabetical order.

Beau Benzschawel, OL

CBS Sports: 3rd Round (No. 102 overall) to the Baltimore Ravens
Draft Wire: 4th Round (No. 114 overall) to Carolina Panthers
Draftteck: 4th Round (No. 116 overall) to Miami Dolphins
Walter Football: 5th Round (No. 149 overall) to Cincinnati Bengals

Ryan Connelly, LB

CBS Sports: Undrafted
Draft Wire: 7th Round (No. 238 overall) to Chicago Bears
Draftteck: Undrafted
Walter Football: 5th Round (No. 159 overall) to Seattle Seahawks

Michael Deiter, OL

CBS Sports: 4th Round (No. 108 overall) to New York Giants
Draft Wire: 3rd Round (No. 75 overall) to Green Bay Packers
Draftteck: 5th Round (No. 169 overall) to Los Angeles Rams
Walter Football: 2nd Round (No. 55 overall) to Houston TexansO

D’Cota Dixon, S

CBS Sports: Undrafted
Draft Wire: Undrafted
Draftteck: 6th Round (No. 190 overall) to Minnesota Vikings
Walter Football: Undrafted

David Edwards, OL

CBS Sports: 6th Round (No. 174 overall) to Seattle Seahawks
Draft Wire: 3rd Round (No. 94 overall) to Los Angeles Rams
Draftteck: 3rd Round (No. 88 overall) to Detroit Lions
Walter Football: 6th Round (No. 181 overall) to Buffalo Bills

T.J. Edwards, LB

CBS Sports: 5th Round (No. 162 overall) to Chicago Bears
Draft Wire: 7th Round (No. 215 overall) to Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Draftteck: 5th Round (No. 145 overall) to Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Walter Football: 6th Round (No. 178) to Jacksonville Jaguars

Alec Ingold, FB

CBS Sports: Undrafted
Draft Wire: Undrafted
Draftteck: Undrafted
Walter Football: Undrafted

Olive Sagapolu, DT

CBS Sports: Undrafted
Draft Wire: Undrafted
Draftteck: 6th Round (No. 182 overall) to Denver Broncos
Walter Football: Undrafted

Andrew Van Ginkel, OLB

CBS Sports: Undrafted
Draft Wire: Undrafted
Draftteck: 7th Round (No. 235 overall) to Oakland Raiders
Walter Football: 6th Round (No. 211 overall) to Cincinnati Bengals

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