Jared Abbrederis returns a punt 38 yards for a touchdown against the Indiana Hoosiers at Camp Randall Stadium on October 15, 2011 in Madison. / Getty Images
The wait was long and stressful, but Jared Abbrederis will start his NFL career with the same team he grew up idolizing as a kid in Wautoma.
With the second of their two fifth-round picks, the Green Bay Packers made the former University of Wisconsin walk-on receiver the 176th selection in the 2014 NFL draft. He’s the first Badger to be taken by general manager Ted Thompson and the first drafted by the Packers since Bill Ferrario went in the third round in 2001.
Abbrederis (6-foot-1, 195 pounds) started as a lightly recruited high school quarterback and state hurdling champion before developing into one of the most productive receivers in Wisconsin program history.
He caught 202 passes for 3,140 yards and 23 touchdowns in 53 games with 39 career starts and was awarded the Bulsworth Trophy this past year for being the nation’s most outstanding player who started his collegiate career as a walk-on.
That didn’t help with the nerves Saturday. He spent the day at his family cabin, but it wasn’t until the Packers finally came calling that he felt some sense of relief.
“It's crazy right now,” Abbrederis said. “There’s a lot going through my head. Just being a walk-on at Wisconsin, and then realizing my dream to play in the NFL, and on the Packers, which is my team, growing up. That's who I rooted for. I'm excited; I can't really explain it. Just a lot of emotions.”
Abbrederis tested OK at February’s combine with a 4.50-second time in the 40-yard dash, but his injury history and four reps on the bench press raised some questions about where he fits in the NFL.
Originally projected as a second-day draft choice, Thompson admitted he was somewhat surprised Addrederis was available with the fifth-round compensatory pick the Packers received for losing outside linebacker Erik Walden to free agency last year.
They were happy to get him, though. One of three receivers the Packers drafted this year, receivers coach Edgar Bennett feels Abbrederis is versatile enough to line up both in the slot and perimeter, and likely will figure into the Packers’ competition for a new kickoff returner.
Thompson has watched Addrederis since he first arrived in Madison as a walk-on and was impressed by how he asserted himself in the Badgers’ offense, which is usually predicated on the running game.
He'll likely need to pack more muscle onto his 195-pound frame in the NFL, but the Packers like his potential.
“His first couple of years especially, he did everything but sell hot dogs down there,” Thompson said. “He did all the returning on kicks and punts and all that sort of stuff, and then you watch him play his junior and senior year and every game they played — the opponents in Big Ten — quality corners are on him and he still gets open, he still catches the ball and he still runs with it. We think he’s a very versatile guy. I think he’s got some return ability, especially when he was younger there at Wisconsin. We’re anxious.”
After taking the long road to Wisconsin, Abbrederis felt he had a realistic shot at the NFL following his sophomore year at Wisconsin when he played with Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson and New Orleans receiver Nick Toon.
He opened the eyes of many scouts in a 31-24 loss to Ohio State on Sept. 28 when he carved up Buckeyes cornerback Bradley Roby with 10 catches for 207 yards and a touchdown. Roby went to Denver with the 31st pick in the first round on Thursday night.
Abbrederis has some depth chart climbing to do in Green Bay.
Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, Jarrett Boykin and second-round pick Davante Adams likely will make up the top tier of the depth chart, but special teams could be a spot for Abbrederis to contribute immediately.
The Packers, who ranked 30th in kickoff returns last season, are looking for a more natural option than cornerback Micah Hyde, who was serviceable as a last resort. Adams, Abbrederis and seventh-round pick Jeff Janis all could be options.
Abbrederis handled punt returns all four years at Wisconsin (55 returns for 587 yards and a touchdown) as well as kickoffs during his first two seasons (31 returns for 800 yards).
“I haven't had a whole lot of conversations yet, but I'll do whatever they ask me to do,” Abbrederis said. “Whether that’s running down on kickoffs, catching punt returns, returning, whatever it may be, I’ll do whatever they ask.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy joked it was “about time” the team has drafted a Wisconsin graduate after coming close in the past few years, though they signed former Badgers quarterback Scott Tolzien to their practice squad last September.
Abbrederis said he doesn’t feel much pressure carrying the torch for Wisconsin draft hopefuls. As for the No. 4 he wore in college, he realizes he'll have to pick a new number in the NFL.
“I definitely think it’s a great fit,” said Abbrederis of Green Bay. “Obviously, you have to work for everything in front of you. I’m excited for the opportunity. They've got a lot of great wide receivers there right now. I'm just excited to be a part of that group. They do a great job of building up wide receivers.”
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