J.J. Watt's rapid rise takes him to draft

Wisconsin fans, you probably won't see anything like this for a long, long time.

It doesn't make you feel much better about losing star J.J. Watt to the NFL draft. But Watt's rise from MAC tight end to Badger walk-on to All-American defensive end to early draft entrant is incredibly rare.

Watt announced Thursday that he will forgo his senior season at Wisconsin and enter the draft. After the season he had, it's hard to argue with his decision.

No Big Ten defender made more big plays this fall than Watt, who ranked third nationally in tackles for loss (21) and recorded every statistic except safety for the Badgers. His stock rose rapidly, and there likely would be more risk than reward -- strictly from a draft perspective -- to staying for another year.

"If I didn't have such a love for this university, for this school and for the game of college football, it would be a little bit of an easier decision," Watt told me last month. "But at the same time, in these economic times, when there's an opportunity to make some money, you almost have to take it. We'll see where we stand, and I have a number in my mind of what I'm hoping the [NFL draft advisory board] will say."

Watt clearly got the number he was hoping for, and it's hard to see him falling below the first round in April's draft.

I certainly got the sense Watt would depart after the Rose Bowl loss, which he took extremely hard. His love for Wisconsin is genuine, but the NFL affords him financial security and the base from which to build his foundation.

Watt wrote an open letter to Wisconsin fans, which reads in part:

This has, without a doubt, been one of the most difficult decisions of my life, and it is one that was not reached quickly, or easily. At this time, I have made the decision to enter the 2011 NFL Draft. It has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember to play in the National Football League, and through hard work and dedication, that dream finally has a chance to become a reality.

I will be a Wisconsin Badger for life and am forever grateful for all of the love and support that the fans, administration and community have shown to my family and I during my time in Madison. I could not have asked for better coaches to play for, better teammates to play alongside, or a better fan base to represent throughout my collegiate career."

Just a total class act. I'll miss covering him.

Watt's departure certainly hurts Wisconsin's defensive line, which needs Louis Nzegwu, David Gilbert and others to step up in 2011. The Badgers soon will have a new defensive coordinator, and I expect Bret Bielema to promote from within the staff.

A lot of changes in Madison, and more could come.