Iowa football scouting report: NFL-prospect Josh Allen vs. elite Hawkeye linebackers

Chris Cuellar
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Perhaps the most important game Josh Allen will play during the 2017 season is Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

Iowa is a pivotal opponent for the junior quarterback, not simply for Wyoming’s record, Mountain West Conference ambitions, and Allen’s own on-field development, but for his soaring NFL draft stock that has college football followers across the country buzzing.

The 6-foot-5, 233-pound star has just two opportunities on the schedule to show scouts what he can do against Power 5 defenses. And the Hawkeyes have their own prospects at linebacker attempting to shut him down with a pro-style scheme.

Dec 21, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Wyoming Cowboys quarterback Josh Allen (17) looks to pass against the Brigham Young Cougars during the fourth quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

“This game is absolutely crucial for Josh Allen,” said Pro Football Focus senior analyst Steve Palazzolo.

“From an evaluation standpoint, you can take something out of any game, no matter who it’s against. But you absolutely want to see guys perform well against their top competition.”

Palazzolo handles NFL Draft and college football coverage for the sports thinktank, backing up Saturday scouting reports with data that comes from grading every possible snap. He’s complimentary and high on Allen’s potential — Palazzolo put the Cowboys’ quarterback at No. 7 in his first 2018 mock draft — but believes Iowa’s defense can harshly highlight where the California native needs to improve.

“He can throw the ball down the middle, he can throw it outside really well, or he can pull it down and run,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “If you’re not on top of your game with the (pass) rush, keeping your contain and those types of things, you’re going to get hurt. And then if you’re not covering guys tightly, you’re going to get hurt there, too. He’s got a great arm.”

Iowa’s entire defense will be charged with controlling an offense that averaged 229 yards passing and 205 yards rushing per game last season. The bulk of the task of keeping Allen in check likely falls on the linebacker corps.

Bo Bower, Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann are the returning senior starters in defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s 4-3 base look, with challenging assignments against the pass and the run. As an AP first-team preseason All-American, Jewell feels like a logical face to put across from Allen for Saturday’s 11 a.m. showdown, but the Decorah grad is more concerned about the game than any hypothetical draft boards.

“I’ll guess we’ll find out Saturday how good he is,” Jewell replied when asked about Allen. “For now, we’re just preparing like it’s a normal guy and a normal team.”

Inside the numbers

Jewell says the biggest in-game advantage Iowa’s linebacker trio will feel from returning 284 tackles and all 39 starts from last season is ability to play even faster. That will come in handy as they welcome one of college football’s top arms to Iowa City for Week 1.

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“There’s still a lot of projection to Allen’s game,” Palazzolo said. “The talent level is undeniable when you’re talking about size, athleticism, arm strength and all the things that scouts love. Translating that to the NFL, the big question mark is going to be accuracy, because he has an absolute cannon. He might have one of the best arms I’ve seen in college football. He might have a top five NFL type of arm. He just throws absolute rockets, and he can do it off-balance.”

The estimations end there for PFF and the two teams set to take the field on Big Ten Network.

According to Palazzolo, Allen ranked 51st in adjusted completion percentage — a PFF formula consisting of completions and drops against pass attempts and other disrupted throws — yet averaged 13.7 yards per target in 2016, good for the second-highest mark in the country. He also held the 24th-highest percentage of negatively-graded throws and threw 20 turnover-worthy passes, which takes the 15 interceptions Allen actually threw last season and adds five more that could have or should have been picked off. All statistics were among draft-eligible quarterbacks entering the 2017 season.

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Dec 21, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Wyoming Cowboys quarterback Josh Allen (17) looks to pass during the second quarter against the Brigham Young Cougars at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Translation: Allen will take shots against Iowa’s secondary and classic Cover 4, but he was shaky on some of those attempts last season.

“I used to coach linebackers and I’ve watched (Iowa's) defense extensively,” Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl told local media Tuesday. “And they’re where they’re supposed to be, they play with great passion and great pad level.

“For us, to give Josh time, the first thing is to get ourselves out of third and long. And you do that by being able to run the ball, which is going to be a tall challenge for us. Iowa does a great job with gap control, controlling the line of scrimmage. They tackle well. We’re going to need to be somewhat unpredictable, but we’ve got to stay out of third-and-long situations.”

Iowa’s zone-heavy pass defense would love to sit back and make plays against Wyoming’s inexperienced wide receivers. Bower, Jewell, and Niemann all chip in with coverage and have proven to be more than capable operating in space.

PFF rated Jewell with the fourth-highest percentage of positively-graded plays against the run among draft-eligible linebackers. And he forced incompletions on 14 percent of his targets in pass coverage, which ranked fourth nationally as well.

Josey Jewell was a Butkus Award finalist as a junior, and the linebacker helps hold together Iowa's bend-don't-break defense.

“I’m a big fan of Josey Jewell and what he can do,” Palazzolo said. “I think he’s one of the better coverage linebackers in the country coming back this year. I think he’s got a good feel for breaking up passes, making plays on the ball. I know they love to play with their three linebackers out there and those guys are going to be important in taking away the intermediate stuff that Wyoming likes to run.”

Defending Allen’s passes in the flats will fall to Niemann, the 6-3, 233-pound outside linebacker who PFF’s system grades as a slot cornerback because of where he most frequently lines up. The 2016 ratings featured the Sycamore, Ill. native missing just five tackles in 13 games last season.

“Niemann holds up out there, even when you compare him to other cornerbacks and even though that’s not really his position,” Palazzolo said. "He held up well in coverage, made plays on the ball, tackled really well.”

Recognizing those abilities in his first opponent of the season, Allen wants to keep the gameplan simple.

“They’ve got a really good linebacker corps,” Allen said from Laramie on Tuesday. “They’re solid up front. They’re going to be missing their best defensive back, so taking advantage of stuff in the passing game is what we’re trying to do. Taking the easy throws and taking what they give us is kind of what we’re planning on doing.”

Best visitor since Big Ben?

Ferentz brought up longtime Pittsburgh Steelers star Ben Roethlisberger when asked about Allen on Tuesday. The Hawkeyes held Miami of Ohio’s former quarterback to 250 yards passing, no touchdowns and four interceptions when he visited Iowa City as an acclaimed draft prospect in 2003.

Allen had a similar performance last season at Nebraska — 189 yards, one touchdown, five interceptions — but might be the most-heralded quarterback to come into Kinnick since then.

“He’s just a really good football player,” Ferentz said. “And full disclosure: I didn’t hear about him or know about him until watching the draft last April. After hearing what they said there, I can certainly see, from watching tape, you can understand why he was being lauded so highly.”

Zach Grant of the Illinois Fighting Illini cradles the ball in his legs that would eventually be called incomplete as Ben Niemann of the Iowa Hawkeyes defends at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 19, 2016, in Champaign, Ill.

Bohl coached recent No. 2 overall pick Carson Wentz for three seasons as a quarterback at North Dakota State. Allen and Wentz share physical attributes and a coaching tree, if not a playing style.

Scouts would love the Wyoming signal-caller to keep his penchant for scrambling while functioning better as a facilitator in a pro-style offense like Wentz has.

 “I noticed Josh Allen last year and I ended up making sure that I watched him every Saturday night when he was on,” Palazzolo said. “We graded every snap, but I specifically made sure to watch him live because he was making plays, rolling left and throwing the ball 50-plus yards in the air and hitting receivers in good spots. You just saw this unbelievable arm talent and athleticism, but then when you dive more into the tape, you just don’t see enough plays where he’s working within structure.

“He's still a young quarterback and only has that one real year of starting. I can’t wait to see what he looks like within that offense this year, to go with that outside-the-pocket playmaking.”

Parker’s players are well aware of Allen’s skills once he runs beyond his tackles, and will attempt to keep him between the hashmarks. PFF graded him No. 1 in the nation on passes once he breaks the pocket and No. 1 on “big-time throws,” which are their highest-graded passes based on timing, depth, accuracy and pressure.

“We just have to be able to keep contain and keep the quarterback in the pocket,” Jewell said. “We’re going to try and stay in coverage as long as possible, too. He’s going to be able to diagnose plays and coverages. We’re just going to have play fundamentally sound football.”

Iowa’s linebackers are good enough to earn their own comparisons, too. The Bower-Jewell-Niemann unit has earned plaudits from its predecessors and gets tossed around next to NFL-bound names like James Morris, A.J. Edds and Pat Angerer. Should the trio stay healthy and improve on its 2016 output, it could even approach the early 2000s production from Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge.

“We’re thankful that we’ve had some very good players here at Iowa,” Iowa linebackers coach Seth Wallace said at media day. “Ben Niemann and Bo Bower, they kind of get overshadowed by Josey a little bit, but they’re pretty good players as well.”

As of Thursday afternoon, Iowa had 11 individuals from six NFL teams request admission to Saturday’s game. They’ll try to glean as much as possible from Allen’s performance before he takes on Gardner-Webb in Week 2 and Oregon after that.

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But the Hawkeyes have a few players across from him who should draw eyes with a strong performance. Palazzolo indicated he “definitely” thought Jewell and Niemann could earn spots in the NFL. Matchups like Saturday’s between Allen and the linebackers may go under-the-radar, but they’re a good reason why Iowa has sent players from the position to the next level.

“Playing coverage is as much about recognition as anything else,” Palazzolo said. “Everybody focuses on athleticism, but I think there is some element of just getting a ton of reps, seeing route concepts, learning when to pass off, learning when to play your zone, all these different things.

“Those are skills that if you don’t do well in the NFL, leads to pretty ugly plays, and when you do them well, tends to go unnoticed. That experience of being in coverage all the time, never coming off the field has ended up working out in Iowa’s guys’ favor at the next level.”