10 final impressions about state-of-Iowa connections at NFL Combine

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

INDIANAPOLIS — The NFL Scouting Combine breezes through this city like a 40-yard dash.

The top draft prospects are sized up, broken down and ultimately reduced to three numbers and a decimal point. All over the course of five days.

Seven athletes who spent their college careers in Iowa were among those tested, and whether they passed depended on who you asked. It was a topsy-turvy weekend for them.

Iowa State receiver Allen Lazard is all smiles after the Cyclones beat Iowa on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

Two of the most popular players in Iowa and Iowa State history, local kids who stayed home and had outstanding careers, came to Indianapolis with big questions about their speed. One quieted talk that he was too slow to play his natural position; the other kept alive lingering concerns about his athleticism.

Two Hawkeyes who left after their junior seasons arrived here with hopes of becoming first-round draft picks. Both left with that dream alive, but with a new question: Which will be chosen first?

Here are 10 things we learned at the Combine:

Lazard can run

Allen Lazard was the lone Cyclone invited to the Combine, where scouts wanted to see if he was as fast as he is big. The wide receiver weighed in at 227 pounds on a 6-foot-5 frame. Could a man that large, with a 38-inch vertical, run a 40 in less than 4.7 seconds?

Lazard, an Urbandale native with 26 touchdowns in a stellar Iowa State career, had the perfect answer. He timed in at 4.55 seconds, making him one of the clearest winners at this shindig.

“The wide receiver position is really cloudy,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock had said. “I might have a guy as a second-rounder and another guy might have him as a fourth-rounder.”

That’s where Lazard figures to slot in, with his ultimate fate up to the whims of whatever team chooses to nab him. One intriguing possibility: the Carolina Panthers, who have an urgent need at wide receiver and have draft picks in Rounds 2 and 3, but not 4.

Carolina quarterback Cam Newton “needs a big body he can throw to that he knows where he’s going to be and has a chance to win the contested throw,” Mayock said.

The official draft profile of Lazard includes this: “Uses elbows, shoulder, hips, and hands to shield defenders from the catch point.”


Jewell not in his element

On the flip side, former Hawkeye linebacker Josey Jewell didn’t exceed expectations in the 40. He did exceed 4.8 seconds (officially 4.82). That time undoubtedly cost the all-American some draft position.

Jewell has three years of outstanding production and film that he can rely on. He also can hope to change the narrative by interviewing well with NFL teams, to show that he can be a leader on a pro defense the way he was in Iowa City.

Jewell also figured to get a boost when NFL teams interviewed Big Ten Conference offensive players. How?

“It’s also interesting to ask some questions about their competition from other schools,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “Who was the toughest guy you played against? Who was the most athletic? Who posed the most problems? And you can glean some information that way. It’s part of the process.”

Jewell was a well-respected, even feared, player among his Big Ten rivals. It’s likely they made that clear when asked.

He may fall to the fifth round of the draft, but he’ll get his chance to show who the real Josey Jewell is: the one on the football field or the one at the Combine?

Daniels rising fast

Former Iowa center James Daniels helped himself immensely at the Combine. The 20-year-old from Ohio was considered among the top four interior line prospects before he got here. He left with murmurs that he could be a late first-round pick.

Daniels weighed in at a healthy 306 pounds, then showed unusual athleticism for someone so large. His vertical was 30.5 inches; his broad jump was 108 inches. He ran a 20-yard shuttle in 4.4 seconds and the three-cone drill in 7.29 seconds.

Just as importantly, for someone with 33 ¾-inch arms, Daniels completed 21 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press. The longer the arm, the more difficult that exercise can be. Considering the biggest question about him might have been his strength, it was an important result.

Daniels was already regarded as a mature and intelligent player. Now, there’s no doubt that the physical gifts match those traits.

Daniels should take heart from what new Indianapolis Colts coach (and former offensive coordinator of the reigning Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles) Frank Reich said: “One thing that we learned is that playmaking is at every level. Offensive linemen make plays.”

If that’s a prevailing sentiment in the NFL, Daniels is in line for a big payday and an immediate starting job.

Jackson hype slows (slightly)

Josh Jackson was the other Hawkeye who entered the draft a year early. After an all-American season in which he led the nation in interceptions (eight) and passes broken up (18), it was the logical move.

The cornerback from Texas is thought to be a surefire first-round draft pick. He is such a highly regarded prospect that he really only had one thing to prove, and that was that the rangy 196-pounder could also run a 40 in the 4.5 range.

That’s where Jackson faltered, turning in a 4.56 that divided the scouting community. Some were left cold by that time, suggesting it cost Jackson any chance at being a top 15 pick. Others were less concerned. But all agreed that he still figures to be chosen late in the first round.

ESPN’s Mel Kiper offered a typical assessment, writing: “It’s not an elite time, but it’s not a disaster. He’s still in the mix for the first round. He also had a 38-inch vertical and a 4.03-second 20-yard shuttle, which were among the top marks at the position. The tape is what matters most here, and he had a fantastic 2017 season.”

Matt Bowen, another ESPN NFL analyst who played safety, thinks Jackson would be a great fit with the Seattle Seahawks. Coach Pete Carroll loves ball-hawking, aggressive cornerbacks.

Seattle has the 18th pick.

It’s also a possibility that Jackson could slide a little farther in the first round and get surpassed by his onetime teammate, Daniels.

Who saw that coming?

Wadley runs in place

Former Iowa running back Akrum Wadley entered the Combine as a player who figured to be picked around the fifth round. Nothing really changed for him in his two days here.

Wadley helped himself by weighing in at 194 pounds, putting on six since his January Senior Bowl appearance.

And he ran a respectable 4.54 40, a time in line with what was expected of him. He is more shifty than blazing fast.

But he only completed 12 reps on the bench press, turned in a 32-inch vertical and turned down the chance to be tested further. Some scouts were particularly interested in seeing Wadley’s time in the three-cone drill. They’ll have to wait.

Wadley immediately headed to Iowa City to prepare for his Pro Day. It will be interesting to see how much more of an impression he can make there.

Welsh thrilled to attend

Sean Welsh was refreshingly honest about what he was hoping to get out of the Combine. The former Hawkeye guard acknowledged he was humbled and honored just to be chosen to compete here.

There was little thought that Welsh is an elite athlete, and his drill work did nothing to dissuade that notion. Instead, he’ll be hoping to get a shot based on his four years of experience against Big Ten competition, when he showed himself to be dependable, durable, versatile and intellectual.

Whether that is enough to get Welsh drafted, he’ll certainly get a chance to land somewhere and fight for his chance at a lengthy NFL career.

Joseph's story takes off

Michael Joseph had one of the best human-interest stories at the Combine, and it quickly took off. Joseph was not deemed good enough or big enough to make a single start at his high school outside of Chicago. He added some size and eventually worked his way onto the field at the University of Dubuque.

Joseph starred for the Spartans and was the only Division III player invited to the Combine. He made thousands of new fans this week just by sticking with his dream. Everyone loves an underdog story.

Joseph then opted not to run the 40, the one drill most scouts wanted to see.

He completed the three-cone drill in a middling 6.8 seconds, jumped 34 inches and had an impressive 17 reps on the bench press.

But Joseph left most with unanswered questions.

Contrary view on Iowa O-line

The prevailing thought in the NFL community is that Iowa does a great job of sending pro-ready offensive line prospects into the league. It’s commonly mentioned by anyone talking about Hawkeyes such as Daniels and Welsh. Indeed, Mayock brought it up right away when assessing Daniels. Hawkeye linemen are always taught well, he said, which is a reassurance to those thinking about drafting them.

One scout who used to cover Midwest area teams offered a different take.

“They’re coached at Iowa to not punch, so they’re just kind of catch-blockers,” he said. “That can work in terms of consistency and cohesion at the college level. But at the NFL level, you’ve got a guy that’s bigger, faster and now he’s being the aggressor, he’s dictating play. That doesn’t work as well. Everyone has this mindset that all these Iowa linemen come in and they’re NFL-ready. And that’s not something you normally coach out of. That’s not something that normally changes. And we see that in a guy like Riley Reiff (a tackle for the Vikings).

“That’s what made Brandon Scherff (a guard with the Redskins) such a great prospect. Because he’s one guy that did punch.”

It’s impossible to tell if that view is privately held by more than one scout, but it’s something to keep an eye on as you watch the draft fortunes of Daniels and Welsh. That scout saw Daniels as more of a third-round pick.

Wadley missing his coach

Wadley gave a shoutout to his former position coach at Iowa, Chris White, when asked about his progress as a pass-blocker. The ability to protect the quarterback is one of the questions NFL evaluators have about Wadley.

“My junior year of pass-blocking, I felt, was better than my senior year. Two different coaches. Two different expectations,” Wadley said. “When I was with coach White, I’d been with him for four years. I’m not taking away from any coaches. But I was more able to cut anywhere. I was able to take on blocks how I wanted to, other than coach Brian (Ferentz). He coached a little different.”

White was dismissed after the 2016 season. He was recently hired to coach tight ends for the Detroit Lions.

Brian Ferentz was offensive coordinator and coached running backs at Iowa last year. This year, he will be coordinator and mentor tight ends. Derrick Foster was brought on board to coach the running backs.

Wadley’s words are a good reminder of the bond that players can build with their position coaches, something that happens far beyond the public eye.

If you’re curious, the Lions have draft picks in Rounds 5 and 7, but not Round 6.

Who's next?

What in-state players are most likely to join Daniels and Jackson by declaring for the NFL Draft early a year from now?

Let’s focus on one Cyclone and one Hawkeye.

Iowa State running back David Montgomery is very well-regarded by scouts. He was named a first team all-American by the folks at Pro Football Focus after gaining 1,146 rushing yards with 11 touchdowns as a sophomore. Montgomery, at 5-foot-11, 219 pounds, scores especially well on advanced analytics, with his ability to force missed tackles. His numbers are also thought to be even more impressive since they came behind an offensive line that was average, at best. If he repeats his sophomore year as a junior, he’ll have a decision to make.

Iowa’s Noah Fant would have been a potential top-five tight end in this year’s rather weak draft class, scouts believe. So what could the 6-5, 232-pounder do with a third college season under his belt? Fant averaged 16.5 yards on his 30 catches this season, with 11 touchdowns. That’s attention-getting stuff. Scouts compare him favorably to Penn State’s Mike Gesicki, who is 15 pounds heavier with a similar skill set. Gesicki is projected as a second-round pick this year.