Leistikow: Tyler Linderbaum doesn't want to be an NFL Draft bust. Odds are, he won't be
Tyler Linderbaum is as “Iowa” as they come. Spent his early childhood in Tipton and the rest in Solon, just a 15-minute drive from his future college of choice, where he played four years of football for his favorite team growing up: the Iowa Hawkeyes.
That’s one reason why Linderbaum's pain as he crumpled to the ground with just over six minutes remaining in the Hawkeyes’ Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl vs. Kentucky was more than physical. The player that Pro Football Focus deemed the best NFL center prospect in at least 10 years was pained emotionally as he hobbled to the dreaded medical tent for attention, with the Hawkeyes clinging to a 17-13 lead.
Linderbaum, in an interview this week with the Des Moines Register, said he knew immediately that the injury was serious. He knew several teammates that had experienced a Lisfranc mid-foot injury, and that’s what this turned out to be. But as the situation was diagnosed (X-rays were negative for a fracture), Linderbaum missed Iowa’s next series — a critical three-and-out, which led to a Kentucky touchdown and 20-17 Hawkeye loss.
If Linderbaum doesn’t injure his left foot, a strong argument could be made that Iowa wins the Citrus Bowl and finishes with an 11-3 record and top-15 ranking. The Hawkeyes were facing a fourth-and-inches near midfield with Kyler Schott at center, instead of their Rimington Trophy winner and consensus all-American. A first-down quarterback sneak (a Linderbaum-led specialty for three years), and Iowa essentially seals the game. Kentucky was out of timeouts. But Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz elected to punt and put the game on his defense.
"That’s probably the worst part about it, I wasn’t out there for those three most important snaps … in the game,” Linderbaum said. “And that’s the game of football. Injuries happen. Luckily, it wasn’t as severe."
Amazingly, Linderbaum did come back and play through the pain — a Lisfranc injury can linger for months or longer, depending on the severity — for Iowa’s last-gasp attempt in the final minute that failed. Even as certain NFL millions were waiting for him, Linderbaum was determined to give everything he had in his final moments as a Hawkeye.
That underscores Linderbaum's internal competitive drive, where he's never satisfied and hates to lose. That's one of the many reasons he’s as close to a sure thing as there is in this year’s NFL Draft that begins Thursday night in Las Vegas.
“I’ve got to prove myself in the NFL,” Linderbaum said. “I’m sure there’s been plenty of times when people talk about a player and think they’re going to be the next big thing, then they get to the NFL and they don’t play a single snap. I don’t want to be that guy.”
A humorous response to the 'short-arms' skeptics
Linderbaum said he wavered for several weeks about whether he would return to college for a fifth-year senior season or make the NFL jump. That seems crazy to most of us, given how much national love he received in the fall, but he said he truly wasn't sure.
"In my mind, I don’t think I’m close to scratching the surface on my potential. That was one of the things that kept drawing me back,” he said, “to solidify myself as the best center, and then take my talents to the NFL."
Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz warned him that as soon as he declared for the draft, there would be highly paid people trying to find any flaw in his game.
And at the NFL Draft Combine, the nitpickers found one in Linderbaum's arm measurement. At 31⅛ inches, Linderbaum’s arm length is the shortest among The Athletic’s top 15 center prospects (a typical length for an NFL center is 33 inches). Nonetheless, Linderbaum is still considered the No. 1 center in a deep class.
“The short arms, that’s what they found. They found something bad about me,” Linderbaum said. "Good for them."
Linderbaum’s dry sense of humor is matched by Brian Ferentz's. The latter played center at Iowa in the early 2000s and spent four years on staff with Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. Ferentz chuckled at any team overthinking Linderbaum's NFL potential based on arm measurement.
“If I was making decisions in his case, I’m not sure I would be real concerned about his arm length,” he said. “Because he’s pretty quick. He’ll get close enough to use them.
“He’s so good. He’s on a different level than most players.”
Linderbaum’s best quality is an athleticism that is combined with the raw power of a mauling wrestler, as he was in high school. When Linderbaum was finally able to test — at an April 11 pro day held at Iowa — he showed that his foot was healed. A 7.14-second time in the three-cone drill would have been tops among offensive linemen at the Combine; his vertical jump of 32½" would have been third.
Always a comedian, Linderbaum also laughed about his (impressive) time of 4.98 seconds in the 40-yard dash for a guy his size (6-foot-2, 302 pounds).
“When am I going to ever run a 40-yard dash, no pads on, stuff like that?” he said.
Linderbaum was reminded that he nearly kept up with Tyler Goodson on a breakaway 80-yard touchdown run to end the Hawkeyes’ 2020 season against Wisconsin. (Goodson ran a 4.42 at the Combine.)
“That’s the only time you’ll see a lineman run down the field like that, is celebrating,” Linderbaum said. “All the numbers and stuff, sometimes people look too much into that. At the end of the day, it’s what you can do on the field. It’s how you play football.
“A guy like Tom Brady, they have him running the 40-yard dash. But Tom Brady can play football, that’s for sure.”
Will Linderbaum stay in the first round?
The echo chamber of the mock-draft world has seen Linderbaum fall from a once-certain top-15 pick to possibly somewhere in the late first round or even early second.
"He has the short arms,” ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said on a recent media call. “That’s the only thing, or else he’s in the middle of the first round."
Interior offensive line in the NFL is coupled with positions like running back and safety that don’t typically command a first-round premium price. No center has been chosen in the draft’s top 15 since Steve Everitt (14th overall) in 1993. However, there have been six first-round centers in the last nine years. Kiper thinks the Baltimore Ravens, who have the No. 14 pick, would be an ideal fit but that might be too early for Linderbaum, who Kiper said “could be a Pro Bowler for a long time.”
Several draft analysts have Linderbaum going No. 31 overall to the Cincinnati Bengals; what a long-term pairing that might be with Joe Burrow.
The Green Bay Packers, Linderbaum’s favorite NFL team growing up, have two first-round picks (Nos. 22 and 28). So do the Kansas City Chiefs (Nos. 29 and 30). One team that desperately needs a center to pair with its young quarterback is the New York Jets, who have two choices in the early second round (Nos. 35 and 38).
If Linderbaum is still on the board in the 20s, draft talking heads agree that any team that takes him will be getting a great value.
There are certainly financial advantages to being a first-round pick. Going in the top 32 means a four-year rookie deal with a lucrative team fifth-year option. Even the No. 32 pick, which belongs to the Detroit Lions, commands a four-year rookie deal worth $12.4 million, according to Spotrac.com, with a $6.2 million signing bonus.
If he goes in the top 32, Linderbaum would become the 11th first-round draft pick of the 24-year Kirk Ferentz era. The five previous Ferentz-era first-rounders on the offensive line are a who's who NFL list: Robert Gallery (No. 2 overall in 2003), Bryan Bulaga (No. 23 in 2010), Riley Reiff (No. 23 in 2012), Brandon Scherff (No. 5 in 2015) and Tristan Wirfs (No. 13 in 2020).
“If you go on Day One, that’s a pretty special thing,” Linderbaum said. “If I end up going Day Two, I’m still going to be happy. At the end of the day, it’s about what you do there.”
While the draft is being held in Las Vegas, Linderbaum will watch from West Branch — where his mom is from — with family.
A fitting place for a small-town Iowan to learn what big-city life he'll be entering next.
"Iowa has done a great job preparing me for this moment,” Linderbaum said, “and I’m going to take full advantage of it."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.