Desmond King is certain to accomplish what no Iowa football player did a year ago — be an early-round pick in the NFL Draft.
Fellow Hawkeye seniors Jaleel Johnson, George Kittle and C.J. Beathard also are likely to hear their names called in April. Cole Croston and LeShun Daniels Jr. probably will have a longer path to the NFL.
And what about talented Iowa juniors Josey Jewell and Akrum Wadley?
There’s a great deal of unknown when projecting how Iowa’s talent will translate to the next level. Last year, after a 12-2 season, only center Austin Blythe was chosen in the NFL Draft — and not until the seventh round by the Indianapolis Colts. The Hawkeyes are 8-4 this year, heading into the Jan. 2 Outback Bowl, but have several players NFL scouts have been keeping tabs on.
A closer look:
It all starts with King, the ball-hawking, sure-tackling cornerback who was named first-team all-American as a junior when he won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best at his position. He passed on the draft then to come back and earn his degree and hasn’t shown any decline in his talent, even though his statistics weren’t as gaudy because teams learned not to test him.
“He’s still the man. I don’t know that he’s shown any one thing that made him better, but he didn’t have to,” said Josh Liskiewitz, the Big Ten Conference analyst for Pro Football Focus. “The only thing that would keep him from being a top-10 pick is maybe (Cordrea) Tankersley from Clemson will up his stock. Or maybe it’s such a deep draft, defensively.”
ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. is more cautious on King, who stands at 5-foot-11.
“We have to see what his speed turns out to be. How fast is he? How explosive is he? I think that’s going to be important, athletically and speed-wise, to see if he can be a corner in the NFL,” Kiper told reporters on a conference call last week. “If he can’t, he can project inside with his tackling abilities. I have a second-round grade on Desmond King right now.”
The defensive tackle leads Iowa with 7.5 sacks among his 54 tackles, and his safety against Michigan helped turn the tide in that eventual Iowa upset.
But Johnson had an uneven season, and that left Kiper wanting to see more.
“Johnson, I’ve been back and forth on. … A little underwhelmed as the year went on,” Kiper said. “I think with the defensive tackle position being pretty good, he’s right now for me more of a fifth-round type of pick.”
Liskiewitz, in his second year with PFF but with previous draft experience at the Sporting News and National Football Post, is much higher on Johnson.
“He’s got a level of explosiveness off the ball, which really shows up probably more so in pass rush than in the run game. Anytime you’re an interior lineman and you have that first-step quickness, that’s something that teams covet,” Liskiewitz said.
“There’s going to be teams that are going to fall in love with a guy or two and they’ll trade picks to move up. Teams will wait on Jaleel Johnson and get him in the third or fourth round and they’ll be just as happy because he’s really economical and he’ll end up starting.
“I want to see him consistently hold up in the run game. He graded fine in the run for us, but it certainly wasn’t anywhere near the passing game, where he was able to get upfield and be disruptive. He could even be a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme. The NFL is moving more and more toward quicker guys there.”
Iowa's starting tight end suffered through injuries late in the season and ended up with only 21 catches for 296 yards. But those numbers come off as misleading for Liskiewitz.
“I really thought he was the best tight end in the country coming into this year. He still graded out well as a blocker. Blocking tight ends that can run — there aren’t many of those guys. I think he’s going to play right away at the next level,” said Liskiewitz, adding that Kittle would be a fit for a team like the Detroit Lions, where he could complement receiving-first tight end Eric Ebron.
“I would assume he would probably go mid-Day 3 (of the draft), which to me is way too low. I would be willing to take him right at the top of Round 4. I think he’s a better athlete and blocker than (C.J.) Fiedorowicz. I think he’ll be a better pro than he was a college player.”
Fiedorowicz is a former Hawkeye who is currently the starting tight end for the Houston Texans. High praise indeed.
Beathard battled through injuries to have a breakout junior season for Iowa, but found it much rougher going as a senior. His numbers — 163 of 278 passing for 1,874 yards and 17 touchdowns vs. seven interceptions — are unexceptional, and his draft stock has fallen accordingly.
“Started out the year hopeful that he would be in that top five to eight quarterbacks overall, and right now he’s not in the top 10,” Kiper said. “We’ll have to see if he’s able to go to the Senior Bowl or not, but I have a late-round grade on C.J. Beathard right now.”
Beathard has accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl all-star game, scheduled for Jan. 28 in Mobile, Ala. King and Johnson also are scheduled to appear. It's a great chance to meet with and try to impress NFL personnel in a setting against other top draft talents.
Liskiewitz said Beathard needs a strong showing there.
“I want to see how his arm looks down there. Arm’s not the be-all, end-all, but when you get to the Senior Bowl, they have the wind coming off the Gulf. Anyone with a poor arm gets exposed,” Liskiewitz said.
“I don’t necessarily think he’s being asked to make a lot of throws that require a big arm — I would like to see more use of his athleticism. I think his hands were a little bit tied. Certainly, Iowa’s system doesn’t promote NFL quarterback-style play — it’s conservative. The Kittle injury hurt. As long as he shows that he has the physical makeup to be a backup, I see him as a late-round pick.”
The offensive lineman also battled injuries late in the season and may have to take the free-agent route to the NFL, Liskiewitz said.
“He’s an interesting one. He was back and forth. There were a couple of games early where he was an absolute revolving door. And then the next game he came back and he was lights-out. I’m not sure what to think about him, really,” said Liskiewitz, who pointed to junior Sean Welsh as the Hawkeye lineman with the brightest NFL future.
Liskiewitz also questioned the notion that the Hawkeyes benefit from their reputation of producing NFL offensive linemen.
“It probably still does to an extent. But I also think that when you look back at what they’ve actually done at the next level, there’s been a lot that haven’t been that well off, especially at the tackle position,” he said. “Riley Reiff hasn’t held up (for the Lions). He can’t punch. I’m not going to say that the Iowa offensive line reputation is as squeaky clean as the media likes to think it is.”
LeShun Daniels Jr.
The running back who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in Iowa’s last game also is unlikely to be drafted, Liskiewitz said.
“He’s a guy that’s hot and cold,” Liskiewitz said. “He’s got the NFL body (6-0, 225). You think you can probably work with him, in terms of blocking. He can do things in space with the ball. He’s a guy that I would definitely look at late if I’m not looking for a feature guy but someone I can work in the lineup.”
Liskiewitz pointed to the Washington Redskins as such a possibility.
Jewell is just a junior but has put together back-to-back impressive seasons as an every-down middle linebacker. He has said he’s likely coming back to Iowa for a senior year. Liskiewitz said that’s not a bad decision, because this year’s draft is heavy on quality linebackers.
“If he were to come out, that’s a mid-round guy that is probably going to start in the league immediately,” Liskiewitz said.
“I think we’ve seen his ability to do a little bit of everything. That’s a clean prospect to me. That’s a guy where, if he’s not blowing up the world with elite athleticism, I think he’s plenty athletic enough. But there’s other guys that are off the charts in front of him a little bit.”
The junior running back is the ultimate wild card. He has gained 966 rushing yards, averaging an eye-popping 6.6 yards per attempt. He added 294 receiving yards and is easily Iowa’s most explosive player, finding the end zone 13 times.
There are durability questions for a player who is listed at 5-11, 191 — but struggles to keep his weight at that level. Liskiewitz isn’t certain that Wadley would get drafted but does see a future in the NFL for him. And his advice to running backs is always to enter the draft if they think they’re good enough, because another year of wear and tear at the college level is only going to shorten their eventual pro careers.
“The best tackling team in the country couldn’t tackle him,” Liskiewitz said of Wadley’s performance against Michigan (167 yards rushing and receiving). “It’s going to be tough for him to go super high. But running back is a position where I think you’re playing with fire if you take a guy too high. There may be a team that’s going to look at Wadley and say, ‘That’s our guy. We’re going to take him in the third or fourth round and let everybody else take the superstars.’
“I’d like to see him clean everything up, in terms of pass-block and receiving. His pure running ability? I think it’s awesome. He has to bulk up a little bit. When you have the ability to make unblocked defenders miss, that’s something that translates to the next level. It seems so simple and trivial to say that, but it’s a big deal.”