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Leistikow's NFL Draft thoughts: Tristan Wirfs about to get paid; does Iowa get two first-rounders?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Even when you’re a projected top-10 pick in the NFL Draft, there are going to be nitpickers.

Such is the case for Tristan Wirfs, the giant Iowa offensive tackle who stole the show two months ago at the NFL Scouting Combine. Yet despite his unique athletic ability and unquestioned power, it doesn’t require much effort to find detractors of the 6-foot-5, 320-pound native of Mount Vernon.

And those perceived shortcomings receive a disproportionate amount of attention.

Not mean enough. Not long enough. Struggles to compete with athletic pass rushers. May have to move inside to guard to avoid becoming a draft bust.

Tristan Wirfs (74) started four games at left tackle during his Iowa career; the Hawkeyes went 4-0 in those games, including a win in the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl and a big 2019 road win at Iowa State (pictured).

But on Thursday night, none of that rhetoric means a lick.

Because Wirfs is going to get picked early in the NFL Draft. He will be ticketed for an eight-figure payday, and it’ll be a monumental moment. Wirfs was raised by a single mother, Sarah Wirfs, who took a job at Target at age 16 and has worked there ever since to support Tristan and his younger sister, Kaylia. Their father was never in the picture.

We won’t get to see Wirfs shaking commissioner Roger Goodell’s hand because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But we will see — assuming the webcam works — a view inside the Wirfs’ happy Mount Vernon home Thursday night after his name is called.

And that sounds about perfect.

If you believe the analysts, Wirfs could be chosen as early as No. 4.

Pretty much every team picking from the New York Giants (at No. 4) to New York Jets (No. 11) rates offensive line as a high-priority need. And Wirfs is part of an upper crust of four offensive tackles — Alabama’s Jedrick Wills Jr., Georgia’s Andrew Thomas and Louisville’s Mekhi Becton are the others — hoping to be the first lineman off the board.

How much Tristan Wirfs' tremendous Combine (which included a record 36.5-inch vertical jump for offensive linemen) helped the Mount Vernon product will be known Thursday night.

There is buzz about the Giants nabbing Wirfs at No. 4 (or trading down a few picks to scoop him up), but the most logical home for the ex-Hawkeye is Arizona. The Cardinals pick at No. 8 and need a right tackle — where Wirfs made 29 of his 33 collegiate starts — to protect quarterback Kyler Murray. The Cleveland Browns (at No. 10) and Jets (No. 11) are also desperate for tackle help, so Wirfs shouldn’t fall too far if the Giants, Cardinals and others such as the Miami Dolphins (No. 5) and Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 9) pass.

Every draft pick Wirfs must wait has a financial impact. The No. 4 pick is slotted to earn a four-year contract value of roughly $33.2 million (including a $21.7 million signing bonus), according to Spotrac.com. The No. 8 pick (as Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson was in 2019) this year gets a contract value of $21.2 million. The No. 11 pick gets $18.9 million.

It’ll be a big night for Wirfs. Exactly how big remains to be seen.

Does A.J. Epenesa’s name get called Thursday night?

If it does (along with Wirfs’), then that would make back-to-back years for the Hawkeyes getting two players drafted in the first round. Before last year’s daily double of Hockenson (to the Detroit Lions) and Noah Fant (No. 20 to the Denver Broncos), Iowa hadn’t had two first-rounders since 1997.

Iowa's A.J. Epenesa, right, and Ohio State's Chase Young are shown at the NFL Combine. They were two of the Big Ten's top pass rushers in 2019.

Significant?

Absolutely. Iowa was one of seven programs to have multiple first-rounders a year ago, joining Alabama (three), Clemson (three), Mississippi State (three), Michigan (two), Ohio State (two) and Oklahoma (two).

“It’s a big deal,” Tyler Barnes, Iowa’s director of recruiting, told us on our Hawk Central radio show Wednesday. “Honestly, 99% of the kids we’re recruiting, their goal is to be able to play on Sundays at some point.”

Opinions on whether Epenesa (6-5, 275) becomes a first-rounder are mixed. Epenesa's best landing spot in the many mock drafts I surveyed was 20th to the Jaguars (Bucky Brooks of NFL.com had him there) and the lowest was 40th to the Houston Texans (per ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr.).

I believe Epenesa will stick in the first round. His film is too good, and he plays a premium NFL position. Epenesa’s ears should perk up as early as No. 16 to the Atlanta Falcons, but there are a bevy of teams in the 20s that need an edge rusher — the Jags, Minnesota Vikings (which have the Nos. 22 and 25 picks) and New England Patriots (No. 23) included.

A smart franchise will see past Epenesa’s sluggish Combine. I’ve got the Baltimore Ravens, at No. 28 overall, as that franchise that won't miss a chance to take one of the most dominant pass rushers to wear a Hawkeye uniform. And that will cement more first-round history for Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes.

When do we start watching for other Hawkeyes to get picked?

Given his strong NFL Combine performance, cornerback Michael Ojemudia could be taken as early as the third round. His 4.45-second time in the 40-yard dash plus desirable length (6-1, 200) and smarts (engineering degree) are strong selling points.

Safety Geno Stone (5-10, 207), who left Iowa after three years, has gotten a lot of positive buzz despite a lackluster Combine. Stone’s savvy ball skills and special-teams flexibility could get him taken as early as the fourth round, which is where The Athletic sees him going.

Where quarterback Nate Stanley (6-4, 235) lands is anyone's guess. It was a huge surprise in 2017 when C.J. Beathard was Iowa’s first draft pick, as a third-rounder to the San Francisco 49ers. Could another team fall in love with Stanley’s smarts (he scored a 40 on the Wonderlic exam, the highest of any QB tested) and powerful arm?

Stanley told me last week that 10 to 12 teams had significant interest, and those teams had established quarterbacks in search of a backup to groom. Stanley expects to be a Saturday pick (Rounds 4-7), and that sounds about right.

Linebacker Kristian Welch has an outside shot of being drafted. even though he didn’t get a Combine invite. Last year, 33 non-Combine players were chosen in the 255-player draft.

MORE: Without a pro day, Kristian Welch scrambles for his pro shot

I think five Hawkeyes get drafted — Wirfs and Epenesa in the first; Ojemudia in the fourth; Stone in the fifth; Stanley in the sixth. That total would be the most for Iowa since getting six draft picks in 2012.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.