The Hawkeye quarterback says his offensive line took a toll on Cornhuskers
INDIANAPOLIS — The big winner at Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 4 was the entire Iowa football team, of course. That 55-24 stomping of Ohio State will be fondly remembered forever in Iowa City.
Next was Hawkeye cornerback Josh Jackson, whose three-interception day turned him into a national star and set the stage for his likely ascendancy to first-round NFL Draft choice.
But, to hear NFL scouts and analysts in Indianapolis talk last week in Indianapolis, the third-biggest winner on that fall Saturday may have been Iowa sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley. Those five touchdown passes — with no interceptions — did not go unnoticed. The fourth one left a particularly deep impression, as Stanley stood in the pocket while future NFLer Sam Hubbard clung to his lower leg in vain, unable to prevent a two-yard scoring dart to Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson.
Quarterbacks are the rock stars of the NFL Scouting Combine, which concluded here Monday. Their every move is dissected like no other set of potential pros, leaving a vapor trail of media speculation in their wake.
There were five quarterbacks in Indianapolis who might get selected in the first round of the April draft — Sam Darnold (USC), Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), Josh Allen (Wyoming), Lamar Jackson (Louisville) and Josh Rosen (UCLA). Of those, Darnold, , Allen, Jackson and Rosen left college early for this opportunity.
What does that have to do with Stanley?
In two years (or with one great year), he could be standing in that kind of company. It’s no guarantee. Stanley’s play needs to improve. But scouts are intrigued by his combination of size and strength, and his 26:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his first year as a college starter.
At a minimum, Stanley enters his junior season at Iowa with many NFL people watching. And much to prove.
A closer look at the potential professional future for the introverted young Hawkeye from Menomonie, Wisconsin:
He looks the part
Stanley’s stature is what first draws the eye of NFL scouts. He is listed at 6-foot-5, 237 pounds, nearly identical in size to Allen, although certainly not with that degree of rare arm strength.
Stanley showed how important that bulk can be, not only with the aforementioned touchdown against Ohio State, but in many other instances in which opposing defenders simply could not knock him off his feet.
“You saw how strong he was in the pocket,” said former Hawkeye and NFL safety and current ESPN draft analyst Matt Bowen. “What guys want in the NFL, you’ll see the knocks on some of these quarterbacks is they’ll say they have narrow frames. They want guys with thickness to stand in that pocket like Andrew Luck or Ben Roethlisberger. Strong quarterbacks who can stand there and take hits and deliver the football.”
His statistics were promising
Stanley completed 196-of-351 passes for 2,437 yards last fall. That 55.8 percent completion rate is also in line with what Allen did, but is considered a shaky number. Contrast that with Mayfield’s 70.5 percent mark as a senior.
“Raw completion percentage is not as big of a deal. It doesn’t account for the distance the ball travels,” noted Pro Football Focus Big Ten Conference analyst Josh Liskiewitz.
Stanley’s numbers look a little better when adjusted for dropped passes, ones that were deflected at the line of scrimmage or ones he threw away to avoid a sack. That brings his percentage up to 72.7, which ranks 24th out of the 87 draft-eligible quarterbacks entering the 2018 season, according to PFF’s measurements.
“They work off that play-action and he’s hitting intermediate and deep routes. That’s becoming a bigger percentage of his throwing range,” Liskiewitz said of Stanley. “I’d want to see the accuracy boost up, especially outside the numbers. Inside the numbers, he was very good even intermediate and deep.”
Stanley also needs to show he can perform better under duress. PFF graded him at 104.7 (using the NFL quarterback rating system) when not being pressured in the pocket. When he was, that number slid to 74.6.
Stanley typically wasn’t making costly mistakes under pressure, but he wasn’t making enough positive plays for the Hawkeyes either. That is where he could help himself.
Winning big would help
Stanley was terrific in a Week 2 44-41 win at Iowa State, throwing for 333 yards and five touchdowns, including the game-clincher in overtime. But there were no other games in which he led the Hawkeyes to dramatic fourth-quarter victories.
Those are the moments that provide notoriety for quarterbacks. And there’s no question that Stanley’s NFL fortunes will rise if Iowa’s win-loss record does as well (Iowa was 8-5 last year).
“If you win, you play on bigger stages,” Bowen said. “You need to at least get to a bowl game.”
“There’s very few losing quarterbacks that make it in the NFL. That’s something NFL teams are going to be talking about to an extent with Josh Allen (the Cowboys went 8-5, but compete in the lower-level Mountain West Conference),” Liskiewitz said. “Josh Freeman was the last quarterback I can think of who got significant playing time in the NFL off of a losing team (Kansas State went 5-7 in his final year, 2008).”
Quarterbacks good enough to play in the NFL typically must show that they’re able to elevate the play of those around them.
Stanley's supporting cast
Iowa is replacing a 1,000-yard rusher in Akrum Wadley, and two offensive linemen with likely NFL futures in James Daniels and Sean Welsh. Wide receiver hasn’t been a strength for the Hawkeyes in years.
“He’s got two tight ends that are going to the NFL,” Bowen said of Hockenson and Noah Fant. “He’s going to have opportunities to make plays. He’s got a good offensive front. They always have running backs at Iowa.”
Liskiewitz said NFL scouts will factor in poor wide receiver play, if that’s the case for Stanley. That’s assuming he’s not forcing passes into tight windows and getting intercepted.
“If he’s consistently having to make contested throws, OK, maybe that becomes an issue. But ultimately there’s an accurate place to make throws and an inaccurate place. NFL teams see that,” Liskiewitz said. “Yes, guys can be helped by good wide receiver play. But at the same time, he won’t be the first quarterback who’s had to deal with (questions about the quality of his wideouts).”
An NFL future?
Everything would have to fall into place for Stanley this season in order for him to consider leaving Iowa a year early for the NFL. But two more years of solid play, in which he shows improvement with his accuracy, enough mobility to go with his strength in avoiding sacks, and leads the Hawkeyes to some more big wins like the one vs. the Buckeyes, and he’ll find himself at the NFL Combine.
“I’m not expecting him to set the world on fire (as a junior), but at the same time he’s got a little more intrigue than (Wisconsin quarterback Alex) Hornibrook,” Liskiewitz said of Stanley.
“I think it’s definitely a year that could be a breakout for him. I think when teams see the accuracy potential, they see a pro-style system (at Iowa) … he’ll be in that conversation. But there’s a couple of those guys every year, so you’ve got to be sure you’re getting better.”
Added Bowen: “I like Nate Stanley a lot. I get upset when I hear people come down on him. He was a first-year starter who threw 26 touchdowns. He’s a big, strong kid with a bright future. He’ll get his shot at the NFL.”