Leistikow's thoughts after Iowa lands five NFL Draft picks, including Nate Stanley to the Vikings

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Starting with hulking right tackle Tristan Wirfs on Thursday and finishing with strong-armed passer Nate Stanley Saturday evening, Iowa’s most successful NFL Draft in eight years is in the books.

The Hawkeyes had a weekend to remember following their 10-3 season and No. 15 final national ranking.

Five Iowa players were chosen among the 255 picks, the most for the Hawkeyes in the annual three-day spectacle since six were nabbed in 2012. But even that year, there wasn’t as much early-round success (first-rounder Riley Reiff was Iowa’s only selection in the first three rounds).

This year, three Hawkeyes were taken in the first 77 picks. Between that momentum and the repeated George Kittle commercials, the NFL Draft served as a Hawkeye football advertisement for nearly 48 hours.

Wirfs stole the show on Thursday, first giving his mom red-carpet treatment in their front lawn in Mount Vernon, then getting chosen No. 13 overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to protect Tom Brady.

A.J. Epenesa was Friday night’s star as the Buffalo Bills’ first pick, and Michael Ojemudia joined him later as he joined Josey Jewell and Noah Fant with the Denver Broncos.

That left Saturday for the other two Hawkeyes who attended the NFL Scouting Combine.

And both Geno Stone and Nate Stanley learned they would wear purple uniforms at the next level.

Stone’s seventh-round selection by the Baltimore Ravens validates his decision to leave Iowa early. He was never going to get a huge draft-day payday, and now the sure-tackling safety gets a chance to learn from veteran Earl Thomas and get his start on special teams. (Iowa linebacker and leading tackler Kristian Welch later signed with the Ravens, too, as an undrafted free agent, he told the Register.)

Stanley’s seventh-round ticket to the Minnesota Vikings is, well, just about perfect — even if he grew up a Chicago Bears fan. His beloved hometown of Menomonie, Wisconsin, is only 70 miles east of Minneapolis on Interstate-94.

With the Vikings, the No. 2 passer in Iowa history will have a prime chance to serve as Kirk Cousins’ backup while being what he always was: A consummate teammate.

Such a scenario would be similar to what he encountered upon his arrival at Iowa, where he rapidly rose to the No. 2 quarterback spot as a true freshman as the backup to proven senior C.J. Beathard. From there, Stanley then became the second three-year captain in Iowa history. I’m not saying Stanley will be an NFL starter, but he will arrive in Minnesota with a competitive fire that helped him win 27 games at Iowa, plus refined mechanics. His journey as the third quarterback drafted in the Kirk Ferentz era (Ricky Stanzi and Beathard are the others) will be fun to follow.

Geno Stone (9) and Michael Ojemudia (11) comprised half of Iowa's starting secondary in 2019, when the Hawkeyes had the nation's No. 5 scoring defense.

Why did Epenesa slip?

That popular question has a simple answer: His 40-yard dash of 5.04 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine. Really, that was all it was.

But when was the last time Epenesa needed to run 40 unimpeded yards to get to the quarterback? (Hint: Never.)

That’s why his slide was silly. Epenesa's powerful hands, strength and football instincts are how he beats offensive linemen. So, when the Buffalo Bills were on the clock for their first pick of the draft at No. 54, general manager Brandon Beane realized there was still a top-20-caliber pick available.

“I’m looking for football players,” Beane said Friday night. “He’s a damn good football player.”

Well put.

Ferentz, appearing on a Bills podcast, mocked those that put too much weight into Combine performances.

“In my personal opinion," the longtime Hawkeye coach said, "there have been a lot of bad decisions (made) by the Combine, both ways.

"I think the Bills have gotten a steal."

Epenesa acknowledged the slip was “disappointing.”

But he gets a great fit with Buffalo, which — just like Iowa — embraces the fact that it’s not a sexy franchise. And he also gets some motivation.

“I was No. 54, so there were 53 people picked in front of me,” Epenesa said in a video conference with Bills media. “It’s not the number. But in the end, all I needed was one team to give me the opportunity, and I’m very grateful and I’m going to give them everything I’ve got. I want to go out and prove to people that they shouldn’t have doubted me.”

The Bills have accumulated growing affection for acquiring Iowa players. Epenesa is now the fourth former Hawkeye on the roster — joining Pro Bowl defensive back Micah Hyde, offensive lineman Ike Boettger and wide receiver Nick Easley.

The third-round selection of Ojemudia was a big deal, not only for him but for Iowa.

Defensive backs continue to see more and more evidence of an increasingly used phrase in Iowa City: “In Phil We Trust.”

Phil Parker’s latest project landed in Denver, where president/general manager John Elway noted that he was bringing “an extremely talented & bright corner” to the Broncos in Ojemudia at No. 77 overall.

This is the fourth straight year that has seen a lightly recruited college prospect become an NFL Draft pick: Desmond King (an all-pro with the Los Angeles Chargers from the 2017 fifth round), Josh Jackson (2018 second-rounder to the Green Bay Packers) and Amani Hooker (2019 fourth-rounder to the Tennessee Titans) preceded Ojemudia.

“If I work hard enough and learn the system,” Ojemudia told the Broncos’ website, “they say I can play.”

With Ojemudia’s selection, Iowa put three players in the first three rounds for the first time since 2010, when four Hawkeyes went in Rounds 1 through 3 (Bryan Bulaga, Pat Angerer, Amari Spievey and Tony Moeaki). The three draft picks ranked second among Big Ten Conference teams, only behind Ohio State’s seven. Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin each had two; Minnesota had one; and the other eight Big Ten teams had zero.

“Definitely a gritty player. Physical, smart. Attack the ball in the air. Just a really hungry guy you want on your team. Somebody you want to play with and not want to play against.”

The viral videos, like the one involving Ojemudia, made this draft special.

In the cell phone video, Ojemudia is seen crying into his hands as family members shout joyous words around him.

Those are the types of moments that the COVID-19 pandemic unintentionally created not only for unexpected stories like Ojemudia’s, but even the biggest stars. Seeing them celebrate in their living rooms with their families — who supported their journey — was heartwarming and meaningful. While the NFL plans to hold its 2021 draft in Cleveland (and 2022 back in Las Vegas, where this year’s was supposed to be), it would be nice to see more of these raw, living-room moments going forward.

"We've seen some things (and) stumbled on that I think will be elements of drafts going into the future," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told ESPN Saturday afternoon, "the ability to use the virtual platforms in a way that we really didn't think about until we were forced to."

Good to hear.

Speaking of 2021 … can Iowa extend the first-round streak?

Probably not, although who saw T.J. Hockenson emerging as the eighth overall pick before Iowa’s 2018 season?  You never know who might emerge.

But among draft-eligible guys that could work his way into Round 1, I’d start with left tackle Alaric Jackson. The 6-foot-7, 320-pounder knows his film was rough in 2019, but that was because his knee was never better than 70%. He’s got the size and athletic background (as a basketball player), not to mention the Iowa pedigree, to become a coveted draft pick at a premier position.

Other guys who will be in the 2021 draft: Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette will look to become the first Iowa wide receiver drafted since Marvin McNutt in 2012. Chauncey Goston has a chance to show how he performs as the No. 1 defensive end. Cornerback Matt Hankins, who started as a true freshman, be the next Phil Parker special. And don’t forget Coy Cronk, the grad-transfer tackle from Indiana.

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.

Iowa’s 75 NFL Draft picks by position under Kirk Ferentz

Offensive line: 18 (1 this year)

Defensive back: 16 (2 this year)

Defensive line: 13 (1 this year)

Tight end: 11

Linebacker: 8

Quarterback: 3 (1 this year)

ide receiver: 3

Running back: 2

Kicker: 1