Leistikow: The chances that Iowa's drafted players are Day One NFL starters
The narrative is familiar this time of year, that the Iowa football program churns out NFL-ready players.
And it’s the narrative, because it’s been proven true.
Even out of last year’s NFL draft, when no Hawkeye was taken in the top 100, three players chosen became instant-impact stas as rookies:
Third-rounder C.J. Beathard started five games at quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. He not only became the first former Hawkeye QB to throw a pass in an NFL game in more than two decades, he threw 224 of them.
Fifth-rounder George Kittle’s 43 receptions for the 49ers ranked No. 18 among all NFL tight ends last year. In the process, he became the second tight end in NFL history to top 500 receiving yards in his rookie year after being undrafted in the first four rounds.
And fifth-rounder Desmond King might have had the biggest impact of them all. The Los Angeles Chargers cornerback, despite starting only four games, was getting Pro Bowl love late in a productive rookie season that included 76 tackles, four sacks and a 90-yard interception return TD.
So it shouldn’t be a huge surprise if at least three more rookies from Iowa challenge for starting roles in 2018.
Here's a closer look at how this year's Hawkeye NFL draft class — James Daniels (No. 39 to the Chicago Bears), Josh Jackson (No. 45 to the Green Bay Packers) and Josey Jewell (No. 106 to the Denver Broncos) — might fit with their new teams:
James Daniels, Bears
Of the Hawkeyes drafted, the 20-year-old offensive lineman (6-foot-3, 306 pounds) probably is best-positioned to be a Day One NFL starter.
Even though all 23 of Daniels’ starts over the past two seasons were at center, Chicago general manager Ryan Pace said Friday night that Daniels would initially play left guard with the Bears. Meanwhile, Daniels will be cross-training at center, Pace said. It’s that kind of position flexibility that the Hawkeyes stress, too.
“We think he’s big enough (to play guard). He’s thick in the lower body,” Pace said. “... Only being 20 years old, we do feel like there’s still some growth potential ahead of him, as well. He just plays with natural leverage and natural pad level.”
The Bears already have a proven center in Cody Whitehair (6-4, 310), who actually was drafted to play guard in the second round out of Kansas State in 2016. Once Daniels is acclimated to both positions, the Bears might slide him back to his more natural spot at center, which would allow them to move Whitehair back to left guard. Pro Bowler Kyle Long locks down the Bears' right-guard spot.
For now, Pace indicated Daniels would compete for a starting job.
But as long as Daniels brings the same amount of nose-to-the-grindstone diligence to Chicago as he did at Iowa and his knees hold up (“All the trainers and doctors I talked to, they said they didn’t have a problem,” Daniels told Bears media Saturday), he’ll be protecting quarterback Mitch Trubisky on Snap 1 of Week 1 at Green Bay.
Josh Jackson, Packers
In today’s pass-happy NFL, it’s a necessity to have three starting-caliber cornerbacks, even though teams typically start two.
Jackson will be one of a talented three in Green Bay, as he joins a young secondary that took Kevin King (Washington) in the 2017 first round, then Jaire Alexander (Louisville) with this year's No. 18 overall pick. It was a brilliant draft beginning for new Packers GM Brian Gutekunst, who not only snapped up two of the draft’s top corners, he secured a 2019 first-round pick from New Orleans by dropping only four spots in this year’s first round.
Jackson (6-0, 196), who had eight interceptions in his consensus all-American 2017 season, is the play-maker Green Bay wanted ... and needed.
“That’s always been a big focus in our defensive backs since (former GM) Ted (Thompson) has been here,” Guteknust said, “ball skills and taking the ball away. When we’ve been at our best on defense the last 10 years ... we’ve taken the ball away.”
In a division that now has Kirk Cousins (Minnesota Vikings) and Matthew Stafford (Detroit Lions) slinging the ball in domes, Jackson will get plenty of work.
The main question is whether he’s an every-down corner on Day One. But starter or not, Jackson will be playing … a lot. Much like King did with the Chargers.
“For me, it’s perfect,” Jackson told the Packers’ website. “A great organization. A winning organization.”
Josey Jewell, Broncos
“The Outlaw” will be an early underdog to become a Day One starter in Denver.
But isn’t that the precise role you’d expect the former two-star recruit (who became a consensus all-American) to face upon reaching the NFL?
Jewell (6-1, 236) has proven people wrong before. And even though Denver’s 3-4 defense brings back two starters at inside linebacker in Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis, that position is considered one of the Broncos’ weaknesses. So there’s opportunity. At first, Jewell will compete with Zaire Anderson for the top back-up job.
At outside linebacker, Denver is now loaded — with Von Miller on one side, No. 5 overall pick Bradley Chubb on the other. What the Broncos could use is an active, productive, sure-tackling linebacker in the middle. (Sound familiar?)
Jewell’s climb to reach a starting role right away definitely is uphill. But you can count on him being an animal on special teams as a rookie, at minimum. And if and when he gets his spot in the lineup, he won’t give it up easily.
At some point — whether it's this year or next — it wouldn't be a surprise to see Jewell starting in the Mile High City.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.