Author: Ryan Wollersheim
MADISON – The 2020 NFL regular season came to a close this past Sunday and brought to an end the rookie campaigns of players around the league. Though, others have the opportunity to continue to show their promise and growth as rookies going forward into the 2021 playoffs. As this is a natural time of the calendar year to reflect on the previous year’s ups and downs – or, perhaps in the case of 2020, downs and downs – now would be a good time to look back at the rookie regular seasons of the former Badgers who made their debuts in this most unusual of NFL seasons.
Here, we will look at the rookie seasons of the two former Badgers who will get an opportunity to expand upon their rookie seasons into this year’s NFL playoffs.
Jonathan Taylor – Indianapolis Colts: 2nd round, 41st overall pick
As the second all-time leading rusher in the history of Wisconsin Badger football, Jonathan Taylor seemed like the perfect fit for an Indianapolis Colts team whose core identity is to ‘run the d**n ball.’ In his rookie season, Taylor did just that as he rushed for 1169 yards and 11 touchdowns on 232 carries. Taylor also caught the ball out of the backfield 36 times for 299 yards and one touchdown
Taylor took over the starting running back duties for the Colts after Marlon Mack, the team’s leading rushing in 2019, tore his Achilles in Week 1 causing him to go down for the rest of the 2020 campaign. Taylor stumbled out of the gate somewhat as he averaged 13 carries and 50.8 rushing yards per game over his first eight starts. He found his footing in the second half of the season though as he averaged almost 20 carries and 123.5 yards in the last six games of the regular season. Taylor topped off his 2020 regular season with a performance for the ages: in Week 17 against the divisional rival Jacksonville Jaguars, he rushed for two touchdowns and 253 yards – the ninth most in a single game in NFL history. This performance helped secure a wild card spot for the Colts in this year’s NFL playoffs and propelled Taylor to be the league’s third-leading rushing in just his first NFL season.
Taylor is now just the third Colts rookie to rush for over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns, putting him in elite company with Colts legends Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin James. The University of Wisconsin has long held the legacy as Running Back U. Taylor has certainly carried on this legacy in his first NFL regular season and has a bright future for many years to come.
Zack Baun – New Orleans Saints: 3rd round, 74th overall pick
Coming into the 2020 NFL draft, the Badgers’ star pass rusher was generating some first-round buzz for his versatility and range with both edge and off-ball linebacker abilities and a high football IQ. The New Orleans Saints valued these traits highly as they traded up to acquire Baun after he fell to the early third-round of the draft.
Baun’s rookie regular season concluded with 12 total tackles and one tackle for loss in three starts and 15 total games played for the Saints. The versatile player found his way onto the field mostly through special teams over the course of the season. He appeared on at least 50 percent of the Saints’ special teams snaps in 13 of his 15 games played. His opportunities on defense however were few and far between. The rookie emerged as the Saints’ strong-side linebacker in the team’s base 4-3 defense, a formation used lightly by the team this season. He struggled to find playing time in a linebacking core that featured a first-team all-pro from last season in Demario Davis and a former pro-bowler in Kwon Alexander as the team’s two main starters. Baun registered a season-high 22 defensive snaps in his Week 17 start against the Carolina Panthers.
The second-seeded Saints will look to make a deep playoff run after they finished the season 12-4. Though, the team will have to do so without Alexander as the linebacker tore his Achilles in Week 16 of the regular season. Therefore, Baun, now the team’s third starting linebacker, will likely see increased opportunities in this season’s playoffs where he might continue to show the value that the Saints saw when they traded up to get him.