Yahoo Sports' top 2020 NFL draft prospects, No. 34: Wisconsin LB Zack Baun

Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports
Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports

34. Wisconsin LB Zack Baun

6-foot-2, 238 pounds

Yahoo Sports draft grade: 5.98 — starter potential

TL;DR scouting report: Late-developing pass rusher with fascinating upside and versatility.

The skinny: Upgraded to a 3-star Rivals recruit, Baun had two offers coming out of high school — Wisconsin and South Dakota State. He committed to the Badgers, initially as a grey-shirt signee under former coach Gary Andersen. When Andersen left, new coach Paul Chryst upgraded Baun’s grey-shirt offer to a full ride.

The high school QB switched over to defense after Chryst showed him how impactful former Badgers LB Joe Schobert was, and Baun redshirted in 2015. As a redshirt freshman in 2016, Baun played sparingly (15 tackles, 3.5 for loss) early in the season before being relegated to special teams.

Baun suffered a preseason foot injury in 2017, missing the entire season. He bounced back to earn a starting spot in 2018, making 63 tackles (7.5 for loss), with 2.5 sacks and one interception in 13 games. Baun broke out as a redshirt senior in 2019, finishing tied for seventh in FBS in tackles for loss (19.5) and ninth in sacks (12.5). He also made 76 tackles, two forced fumbles, one interception and two passes defended in earning second-team AP All-America and first-team all-Big Ten.

Baun, who turns 24 in December, competed well in the Senior Bowl and at the NFL scouting combine, taking part in all the testing drills and posting solid-to-very good numbers across the board.

Upside: Well-built, fluid athlete. Offers surprising explosion and twitch. Excellent lateral range and has developing coverage skill. Loose hips to turn and run. Surprising, underrated core strength — routinely battled with tackles 60 to 70 pounds heavier and held his own.

Offers nice versatility as a hybrid rusher/run defender/coverage player. Looked far more natural in coverage as senior season progressed. Took more reps as off-the-ball linebacker at Senior Bowl and proved it wasn’t too big an ask. Should be a scheme-diverse player who can fill multiple roles in time.

This play against Michigan State is a good example of how Baun’s off-ball instincts have developed. Late in the blowout, Baun fakes the rush on the zone pressure, keeps his feet square and beneath him and reads the QB’s eyes, hauling in a tough catch for a pick-six:

Baun hauls in a tricky pass for a pick six against Michigan State.
Baun hauls in a tricky pass for a pick six against Michigan State.

Made huge strides from 2018 to 2019 as a developing pass-rush talent. Showed some excellent bend and juice as an edge rusher last season. Sneaky-quick interior pass-rush moves that caught some tackles flat-footed. Rush skill must be showcased in the NFL, even if only as a blitzer or sub-package rusher.

Motor always revved up. Aggressive in run support — sets a good, hard edge from three-point stance and pursues well on his feet. Uses his hands very well and can shock blockers and shed very well. Nice arm length (32 3/4 inches) to extend and get into blockers’ chests. Watch Baun (lined up on the left side of your screen) use his length — the old one-arm-is-longer-than-two-arms teaching point — to keep 6-foot-6 Ohio State TE Luke Farrell at bay, forcing the JK Dobbins run back inside for a short gain:

Baun uses his length to fend off the tight end and control this run play.
Baun uses his length to fend off the tight end and control this run play.

Turned in some dominant performances (see the Michigan game) where he was the best defender on the field. Natural football instincts and football IQ — understands pass-game concepts and should pick up complex NFL playbook readily.

Mature and smart. Blue-collar work ethic. Even-keeled temperament. Perfect mentality for special-teams duty and good experience (was first man downfield on one punt-coverage rep at the Senior Bowl).

Trusted Wisconsin coaches with position conversion and made it his craft. Will be the kind of player who puts on his hard hat and goes to work in the NFL for a decade, likely with a smile on his face. Selfless, committed winner.

Downside: Pass-rush duties could be limited on the next level. Frame appears close to maxed out at 235-240 pounds. Lacks power-rush ability. Spin and countermoves can sometimes run him out of gap assignments. Will let containment slip away at times trying to do too much. Longer tackles can get into his chest.

Bottled up on pass-rush snaps vs. Iowa’s talented tackles, Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson. Smothered a few times in Senior Bowl one-on-ones by Day 2 and 3 prospects Matt Peart and Charlie Heck. Will lose rush balance and lean too far forward.

Scouts disagree on his upside. Figures to be more of a “stack” linebacker, which could cause a short delay in his immediate impact. Had trouble finding the ball at times on option plays (see Michigan State game) and RPOs. Committed seven penalties last season — jumped offsides five times (one declined). Tries to time the snap and can get caught being too anxious.

Still learning how to read keys from two-point stances. Will be tested in deeper coverage — more of a zone/hook defender and will need to refine man-coverage technique.

Injury history must be carefully considered — suffered torn meniscus (right knee) in 2016 and torn Lisfranc ligament (left foot) in August 2017. Also re-injured same foot and missed a week of spring practice in April 2018.

Wisconsin LB Zack Baun can rush the passer and work in reverse. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Wisconsin LB Zack Baun can rush the passer and work in reverse. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

Best-suited destination: Baun’s intriguing mix of skills could make him a Pro Bowl player, but he might need some seasoning to reach that level. He figures to be a 3-4 outside linebacker or a “Sam” or “Will” linebacker in an even front where he’s allowed to use his pass-rush skills on passing downs.

Among the NFL teams that could be interested in his services include the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, New England Patriots, Detroit Lions, Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs, New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers.

Did you know: As the pride of Brown Deer, Wisconsin (population: 12,000), Baun has a chance to be the most famous athlete from his hometown. Up until now, the most famous sports figures from the town are former NBA sharpshooter Steve Novak and former MLB umpire Bruce Froemming.

Baun was a three-sport star (along with basketball and track) and was named the 2014 Dave Krieg Award winner, given to state’s most outstanding senior quarterback. He operated a zone-read and RPO-heavy system, throwing for 1,936 yards and 20 touchdowns and rushing for 1,837 yards and 39 touchdowns.

Baun’s recruitment as a QB was limited, and Wisconsin has turned a few former high school quarterbacks into NFL defensive players, including the Steelers’ T.J. Watt, the Giants’ Ryan Connelly, the Dolphins’ Andrew Van Ginkel and the Eagles’ T.J. Edwards.

NFL scouts say Baun could be the next in line of that fraternity.

They said it: “[Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst] kind of showed me what [former Badgers LB] Joe Schobert could do. He was the example. So I’m [thinking] this dude is covering, rushing the passer and doing everything? Yeah, I want to do that. I just trusted in the development program Wisconsin had, and here I am today. I’m very thankful.”

— Baun at the combine

Player comp: Kyle Van Noy or (a smaller) Anthony Barr.

Expected draft range: Late first- or early second-round pick.

Previous prospect rankings: Nos. 100-91 | 90-81 | 80-71 | 70-66 | 65-61 | 60-56 | 55-51 | 50. DT Justin Madubuike | 49. CB Damon Arnette | 48. OT Ezra Cleveland | 47. WR KJ Hamler | 46. CB A.J. Terrell | 45. RB Cam Akers | 44. DL Ross Blacklock | 43. OT Josh Jones | 42. DT Jordan Elliott | 41. C Cesar Ruiz | 40. S Kyle Dugger | 39. EDGE Terrell Lewis | 38. WR Laviska Shenault Jr. | 37. S Grant Delpit | 36. Jonathan Taylor | 35. WR Brandon Aiyuk | 34. EDGE Zack Baun | 33. EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos | 32. CB Jeff Gladney | 31. QB Jordan Love | 30. CB Trevon Diggs | 29. EDGE A.J. Epenesa | 28. RB JK Dobbins | 27. WR Justin Jefferson | 26. WR Tee Higgins | 25. S Xavier McKinney | 24. WR Jalen Reagor | 23. CB Kristian Fulton | 22. RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire | 21. WR Denzel Mims | 20. LB Kenneth Murray | 19. RB D’Andre Swift | 18. QB Justin Herbert | 17. LB Patrick Queen | 16. WR Henry Ruggs III | 15. EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson | 14. WR Jerry Jeudy | 13. OT Mekhi Becton | 12. DT Javon Kinlaw | 11. OT Andrew Thomas | 10. OT Tristan Wirfs | 9. WR CeeDee Lamb | 8. OT Jedrick Wills Jr. | 7. CB CJ Henderson | 6. LB-S Isaiah Simmons | 5. DT Derrick Brown | 4. QB Tua Tagovailoa | 3. CB Jeffrey Okudah | 2. QB Joe Burrow | 1. Chase Young

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