Leistikow: Breaking down Hawkeyes' robust NFL presence ahead of Week 1

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

If you’re a fan of the Iowa Hawkeyes, you’ll likely be hit with an empty feeling (if you haven’t already) as college football games are played without the inclusion of your team.

However, you can still root for some Iowa Hawkeyes this fall.

There are 28 former Hawkeyes who achieved coveted spots on 53-man rosters ahead of this week’s NFL openers. That’s a big number. That is tied for 12th (with Florida State and Washington) among college teams. For reference, these three programs are tied for ninth with 29 active players on NFL 53-man rosters: Clemson, Oklahoma and Notre Dame. In the Big Ten Conference, only Ohio State (50), Michigan (33) and Penn State (32) have more.

First-round draft pick Tristan Wirfs of Iowa is getting the Week 1 starting nod at right tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The list of 28 (plus three others on practice squads) includes a pair of reigning world-champion linebackers; the newest pass protector for Tom Brady; the highest-paid tight end in NFL history; eight offensive linemen (including one who never played the position at Iowa); two quarterbacks; and eight players in the NFC North footprint.

A spin around the league, and you'll see some pretty cool Hawkeye stories.

Baltimore Ravens (2)

When safety Geno Stone declared early for the NFL Draft, he had plenty of detractors — particularly after a disappointing Combine. But Stone clearly made the right call. The Ravens kept Stone, a seventh-round pick, on their 53-man roster at safety ahead of Jordan Richards (a former second-round pick from Stanford).

Stone may be undersized, but his scrappy nature and nose for the football could make him a long-term special-teamer in the NFL, if not more.

It was also good to see rookie linebacker Kristian Welch, an underappreciated force on Iowa’s 2019 team that went 10-3, make the Ravens’ practice squad as an undrafted free agent.

Buffalo Bills (3)

Although the Bills have cut ties with former Hawkeye receiver Nick Easley, they still have three Hawkeyes in the 53-man fold: offensive lineman Ike Boettger, defensive end A.J. Epenesa and safety Micah Hyde.

Epenesa’s usage and impact as a rookie second-round pick on one of the NFL’s deepest defensive lines will be fascinating to watch. He was a dominant force at Iowa off the edge, but you might see him work inside at tackle for Sean McDermott’s defense, too.

Boettger has found value in his third NFL season as a valuable depth piece who can swing from guard to tackle.

Hyde, a fourth-year starting safety in Buffalo, has gone from being a fifth-round pick of the Green Bay Packers to a durable NFL career with a 2017 Pro Bowl nod.

Chicago Bears (1)

The Bears need to see a big jump from offensive lineman James Daniels, who hasn’t caught on at center (where he mostly played at Iowa) but enters his third NFL season as the team’s starting left guard.

The 2018 second-round pick will again block for former Iowa State running back David Montgomery, the Bears’ No. 1 ball carrier.

Cincinnati Bengals (1)

He was a free agent for much of the coronavirus-altered NFL offseason, but defensive tackle Mike Daniels is back on an NFL roster after signing a one-year, $2.7 million deal.

This could be the ninth-year pro’s last NFL stand. Daniels has gone from a fourth-round pick of the Packers in 2012 to making more than $44 million playing football.

Cleveland Browns (1)

Former first-round pick Adrian Clayborn begins his 10th season as an NFL defensive end.  With Myles Garrett rushing from one edge and Olivier Vernon from the other, the Browns basically need Clayborn to be a reliable rotational piece. And he has proven capable of doing that.

Noah Fant is expected to have a big second season with the Broncos at tight end.

Denver Broncos (3)

Three recent former Hawkeyes are making big waves in the Mile High City.

The Broncos (under defensive mastermind Vic Fangio) believe that Josey Jewell can get the job done at inside linebacker, as they cut veteran leader Todd Davis. Jewell becomes an unquestioned starter and provides the third-year pro a chance to shine as a tough tackler.

Noah Fant led all rookie tight ends last season in catches (40) and receiving yards (562); those numbers are very similar to what George Kittle (more on him later) did in his first NFL season of 2017 (43 catches, 515 yards). One year later, Kittle set an NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end (1,377). Just FYI.

And then there’s cornerback Michael Ojemudia, a third-round rookie who has endeared himself quickly to Fangio — even as he deals with a quad injury — and is in the mix for a role in the Broncos’ nickel package.

Detroit Lions (2)

Speaking of second-year tight ends from Iowa, former No. 8 overall pick T.J. Hockenson is aiming for a strong rebound season after his 2019 was cut short by an ankle injury. Getting a healthier Matthew Stafford back at quarterback (instead of Jeff Driskel and David Blough) will help.

And how about this story: Former Hawkeye defensive tackle Matt Nelson made the Lions’ 53-man roster as an offensive lineman! He never played the position at Iowa, but after one year on Detroit’s practice squad, he has successfully made the transition to offensive tackle (where he’s listed at 6-foot-7, 300 pounds). Pretty amazing.

Former No. 8 overall draft pick T.J. Hockenson, a Chariton native, has been looking good during training camp for the Detroit Lions.

Green Bay Packers (2)

This is a make-or-break year for defensive back Josh Jackson, a second-rounder in 2018 who has been tried in many places (including at safety) but has yet to find a home. (He played just 10% of the Packers’ defensive snaps in 2019). But reports say he was thriving as an outside cornerback during training camp; he needs to seize this opportunity.

In contrast, inside linebacker Christian Kirksey is a known commodity for the Packers. He arrives as a free agent but needs to avoid the injury bug that bit him the past two years in Cleveland.

Jacksonville Jaguars (1)

Because he’s on the suspended list (four games, for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs), defensive lineman Carl Davis doesn’t count toward the Hawkeyes’ 28 on 53-man rosters.

Kansas City Chiefs (2)

It’s possible that the defending Super Bowl champions could start two Hawkeyes at inside linebacker this season.

One is a certainty, in veteran middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens (527 career tackles). Third-year pro Ben Niemann, an undrafted free agent, may also find footing as a starter as weak-side linebacker. Coaches credit Niemann’s high football IQ (his father, Jay, is an assistant defensive coach at Iowa) as putting him in position to take the next step.

Ben Niemann's third season with the Chiefs could see him in his most prominent role yet.

Los Angeles Chargers (2)

Right tackle Bryan Bulaga signed a three-year, $30 million deal, a continuation of an incredibly solid career for the 2010 first-round pick.

Defensive back Desmond King has had three mostly stellar years with the Chargers as a versatile chess piece (as a corner, safety and kick returner) and now enters the final year of his fifth-round rookie deal. If the 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner can stay healthy, a huge payday awaits.

Los Angeles Rams (1)

Offensive lineman Austin Blythe started at right guard in Super Bowl LIII and continues to be in the Rams’ plans, now as the starting center. The Williamsburg native has done well for himself as a seventh-round pick (by the Indianapolis Colts) in 2016.

Minnesota Vikings (3)

Offensive tackle Riley Reiff agreed to a pay cut to stay with the Vikings, knocking his salary down from $11 million to $6 million for 2020, but he can recover another $2 million by reaching playing-time incentives. Credit to Reiff, he’s been durable and is set to start Sunday against the Packers at left tackle.

Jaleel Johnson gets a big opportunity in his fourth season in Minnesota. The 2017 fourth-round pick is listed as a starting defensive tackle.

And yes, quarterback Nate Stanley — a seventh-round pick in April — remains a Viking. He was one of two QBs signed to the practice squad (Jake Browning is the other). They’ll back up Kirk Cousins and Sean Mannion.

New York Giants (1)

How about the persistence of long snapper Casey Kreiter? After two unsuccessful training camps with the Dallas Cowboys, he latched on with the Broncos in 2016 and in 2018 was invited to the Pro Bowl. Now, at age 30, he’s on his second consecutive $1 million deal to snap accurate balls for punts and field goals. Cool story for the native of DeWitt.

Iowa alum George Kittle is neck-and-neck with the Chiefs' Travis Kelce as the best tight end in the NFL.

San Francisco 49ers (2)

Before we get to you-know-who, quarterback C.J. Beathard continues to be a factor in the 49ers’ plans. Beathard and Nick Mullens are co-No. 2s to Jimmy Garoppolo for the reigning NFC champions. In the COVID-19 era, a team probably needs to have as many capable QBs as possible at the ready. (A side note: Beathard's former Hawkeye quarterback teammate who transferred to Michigan, Jake Rudock, is on the practice squad of the Miami Dolphins.)

Tight end George Kittle is the most prominent active NFL Hawkeye, particularly now that Marshal Yanda has retired. Kittle’s five-year, $75 million extension that was signed in August (with $40 million guaranteed) was the richest deal ever for a tight end. The next question: When will Kittle (2,945 receiving yards in three seasons) to track down Hawkeye and Colts legend Dallas Clark (5,665 yards in 11 seasons)? Let's go with December 2022. 

Seattle Seahawks (1)

Good for defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore, who latched onto the Seahawks’ practice squad as an undrafted rookie. Seattle has a strong reputation at developing undrafted defensive talent.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2)

First-round rookie Tristan Wirfs has earned the starting right tackle job for Week 1, meaning the Mount Vernon product gets to protect Brady and line up next to Rob Gronkowski. Bucs run-game coordinator Harold Goodwin praised Wirfs as “the real deal. He’s going to be a problem out there for a lot of edge rushers.”

Second-year pass rusher Anthony Nelson is primed for a top backup role in 2020, with playing time opened by Carl Nassib’s departure in free agency. Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul are the Bucs’ starting edge rushers.

Tennessee Titans (1)

Amani Hooker, one of nine Hawkeyes over the last three years to leave school early for the NFL Draft, enters his second pro season as a depth piece at safety, slot cornerback and special teams.

Washington Football Team (1)

Former No. 5 overall draft pick Brandon Scherff is considered one of the NFL’s top offensive guards. The 2014 Outland Trophy winner was retained by the franchise tag for $15.03 million and will be a 29-year-old free agent this offseason, with plenty of good football remaining.

That was quite a list. A lot of those ex-Hawkeyes are prominent starters. And, especially without Iowa football on Saturdays, their stories are worth continuing to follow.

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.