Leistikow: Iowa football lessons learned from the 2022 NFL Draft

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central
Baltimore Ravens first-round pick Tyler Linderbaum, second from right, is pictured with head coach John Harbaugh, second from left, director of player personnel Joe Hortiz, left, and executive vice president and general manager Eric DeCosta, right.

In the recently completed NFL Draft …

Penn State led the Big Ten Conference with eight draft picks, the most for the Nittany Lions since 1996.

Iowa State had four players selected for the first time since 1977, when there were 12 rounds instead of seven.

Led by Wisconsin’s five, the seven-team Big Ten West Division had 20 players selected — nearly matching the entire Atlantic Coast Conference’s 21 draft picks and not far behind the Pacific-12 and Big 12 (25 each). Purdue had a first-round pick in George Karlaftis and a third-rounder in David Bell; 3-9 Nebraska had two second-round picks; Minnesota had two guys taken in the first three rounds and four overall. Even Illinois had three players drafted.

As for Iowa? Just two players were drafted, the program’s lowest total in six years — center Tyler Linderbaum to the Baltimore Ravens (first round, 25th overall) and defensive back Dane Belton to the New York Giants (fourth round, No. 114 overall).

Undrafted free agent signee Jack Koerner (left) intercepts a pass intended for No. 16 overall pick Jahan Dotson in Iowa's 23-20 win vs. Penn State on Oct. 9.

Yet the Hawkeyes beat Iowa State in Ames, by 10. They took down Penn State in an electric top-five home matchup that ultimately swayed a five-star safety to sign. They won the West Division outright and posted a 10-2 regular-season record.

This might be a good opportunity to give an extra hat tip to Iowa’s coaching staff. Phil Parker’s defense and LeVar Woods’ special teams maximized their output to help the Hawkeyes go 7-0 in regular-season games decided by 10 points or less. And give credit to Brian Ferentz’s offense, too, for finding enough big plays to outscore Minnesota in a tense 27-22 win in November that ultimately tipped the West.

Seeing Michigan and Kentucky (nine combined draft picks) with a lot of prime draft talent also was a reminder that the Hawkeyes’ postseason losses in the Big Ten Championship Game and Citrus Bowl came against formidable foes.

Perhaps this is also a signal that there is quite a bit of punch still on the Hawkeyes’ 2022 roster. (More on that at the bottom of this column.)

Some other final thoughts from a Hawkeye perspective on the NFL Draft …

Linderbaum is going to be a hit in Baltimore. There wasn’t a more perfect fit than the Ravens for Iowa’s consensus all-America center. In Linderbaum, the Ravens are getting a plug-and-play starting center in Week 1. In Baltimore, Linderbaum is getting a franchise that appreciates hard-nosed football players (like ex-Hawkeye/Raven Marshal Yanda).

Given Linderbaum’s nasty streak and athleticism at center, he should be a great pairing with running quarterback Lamar Jackson. Ravens coach John Harbaugh was asked about Iowa’s zone-run scheme but said the Hawkeyes “run plenty of gap schemes (and) plenty of lead schemes. (They run) lots of pulls, lots of screens. These are all things that when you have a center who is very athletic, you can do those things.”

Here’s predicting that we will see some Ravens highlights this fall where Linderbaum is throwing key downfield blocks on some long quarterback runs by Jackson. (Admittedly, given Linderbaum's track record at Iowa, that’s not a very bold prediction.)

Belton’s rise is a reminder how fast football time goes. When thinking about Belton going from Iowa City to the Big Apple, my mind flashed back to 40 months ago in Tampa. During a pre-2019 Outback Bowl practice, I remember seeing Belton and his family show up to catch some of the action. Belton was still a Tampa Jesuit High School senior then as the Hawkeyes were preparing to beat a Mississippi State team with three first-round draft picks.

Now, Belton is the latest Parker-to-the-pros story of the Iowa defensive backfield. Belton came in as a three-star safety prospect, and he is off to the NFL in less than three years. It’ll be fun to see if five-star safety prospect Xavier Nwankpa can follow a similar path (with higher recruiting acclaim) at Iowa.

Speaking of the 2019 Outback Bowl, you’ll recall that Noah Fant was missing from that game. The tight end opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft, and he wound up being selected No. 20 overall by the Denver Broncos.

During this cycle, running back Tyler Goodson became the second bowl-game opt-out in the Kirk Ferentz era … and then went undrafted. A lot of people have wondered why Goodson wasn’t among the 23 running backs chosen during the three-day, seven-round draft, especially considering he ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine.

The running-back position has lost its premium luster at the next level, and NFL teams are more often making that position a late-round afterthought. By comparison, 17 wide receivers were drafted in the first three rounds alone (tying a record last set in 2007).

In that sense (other than maybe pride), it didn't matter whether Goodson was a sixth- or seventh-round pick or a free agent. Most Day 3 acquisitions are automatically in a tough battle for an NFL roster spot. Rosters begin at 90 but get trimmed to 53 for the season (and only 46 dress for games).

Finding the best fit was important for Goodson, and he seemingly found that in Green Bay. Goodson’s pass-catching ability should stand out with the Packers, who have more physical running options in Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon (remember him from the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl?).

Iowa running back Tyler Goodson catches a pass at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Friday, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Could Caleb Shudak be the next NFL kicker from Iowa? Nate Kaeding, the 2003 Lou Groza Award winner, holds that distinction. The Iowa City West product enjoyed a long career with the San Diego Chargers. Shudak seems to have a great opportunity to at least compete for a job with the Tennessee Titans, a franchise that has had struggles in the kicking game (including with record field-goal futility in 2019).

Randy Bullock was Tennessee’s kicker a year ago and just OK by NFL standards (26-of-31 field goals, three missed PATs) and doesn’t have a huge leg (only one 50-plus attempt in 2021 and 13-for-26 from distance in a journeyman career). Shudak, despite being 5-foot-6½, has a consistent deep leg from 50-plus yards and is a touchback machine on kickoffs. His maturity (age 24) and consistency should give him a shot at one of the coveted 32 NFL placekicker jobs in the world. Former Penn State kicker Sam Ficken, another journeyman, is also in the mix.

Matt Hankins is an under-the-radar Hawkeye to watch at the next level. Hankins was on the verge of an all-American senior year for the Hawkeyes until injuries derailed the second half of his season. Hankins signed with the Atlanta Falcons, a franchise that is trying to rebuild its roster and perhaps get positioned to have a top pick (at a quarterback) in the 2023 draft. Atlanta wants to get by with cheap players this season, so Hankins will have a chance to prove himself  — especially considering the Falcons didn’t draft a cornerback.

It’s hard to doubt the motors of Iowa’s two other undrafted free agents in defensive end Zach VanValkenburg (Las Vegas Raiders) and safety Jack Koerner (New Orleans Saints). Offensive lineman Kyler Schott also earned a tryout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Let's peek ahead to the Hawkeyes in the 2023 NFL Draft. Tight end Sam LaPorta made a big decision to return to the Hawkeyes for his senior season, and that could pay off in April 2023. LaPorta was pegged as the No. 42 overall prospect in The Sporting News’ early 2023 draft projections. Physical and fast middle linebacker Jack Campbell figures to be chosen in the first two days of the draft as well. Linebacker Jestin Jacobs (great size and athletic traits), cornerback Riley Moss (reigning Big Ten defensive back of the year with speed) and punter Tory Taylor (four punters were drafted in 2022) also should have a solid chance of hearing their name called.

And there always seems to be a player or two that makes a surprising jump. Who’s to say Lukas Van Ness couldn’t be an impact defensive end this season for the Hawkeyes and have a decision to make? Could cornerback Terry Roberts get healthy and have a big senior season? Maybe such a rise occurs for tackle Jack Plumb?

Going back to the original theme of this column, the Hawkeyes probably overachieved in 2021 but also showed they had a lot of excellent building blocks for 2022.

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.