NFL Draft: Mel Kiper Jr. explains rise of Iowa's Tristan Wirfs, possible fall of A.J. Epenesa

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The possibility is getting stronger that for the second consecutive NFL Draft, an Iowa Hawkeye will be chosen with the No. 8 overall pick.

That's where longtime ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs slotted in his latest mock draft. Kiper explained his reasoning for making Wirfs his No. 1 tackle off the board, at No. 8 overall to the Arizona Cardinals during a conference call with select media Wednesday afternoon.

“At Arizona, they could use help at right tackle immediately, if you deem him the best right tackle,” Kiper said. “You talk to people in the league about that; this is not based on what I think. This is what the league thinks.

“So, it’s not me. I don’t have Wirfs as the top tackle. But I think for Arizona, it would be a good fit.”

Tristan Wirfs' chances of being a top-10 pick at next month's NFL Draft continue to look good.

Wirfs was one of the stars of the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. The 6-foot-5, 320-pounder dazzled viewers and analysts with a 4.85-second run in the 40-yard dash and combine-record jumps for offensive linemen of 36½ inches in the vertical and 121 inches in the broad.

So, Wirfs’ top-10 stock continues to solidify. And the consensus is that the Cardinals will be the best fit for him following their recent trade acquisition of wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Kiper previously had Oklahoma wideout CeeDee Lamb pegged as the Cardinals’ best choice at No. 8 (reuniting him with quarterback Kyler Murray), but now Wirfs moves in that spot.

Kiper isn’t alone. The post-free agency mock draft from Pro Football Focus’ Michael Renner has Wirfs at No. 8, too. With Arizona resigning left tackle D.J. Humphries, right tackle — the position that Wirfs has locked down for most of three seasons at Iowa — is a huge need.

If that scenario unfolds, Wirfs would follow T.J. Hockenson’s footsteps. The former Hawkeye tight end was chosen No. 8 overall in 2019 by the Detroit Lions. According to, this year's No. 8 pick will receive a signing bonus of nearly $13 million with a total contract value of $20.6 million over four years.

So, while Wirfs is surefire first-rounder, what about defensive end A.J. Epenesa?

After a so-so Combine performance, Kiper sees Epenesa (6-5, 275) slipping into the late first round. He has Epenesa going No. 25 overall to the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings also own the No. 22 pick. And with the departure of Everson Griffen in free agency, edge rusher becomes a high priority in Minnesota. Spotrac projects the No. 25 pick getting a signing bonus of $6.9 million and total contract value of $12.25 million.

Still, Kiper doesn’t think it’s a lock that Epenesa remains in the first round. Renner agrees; he doesn’t have Epenesa in his latest first-round projection.

“Epenesa, he’s dropped a bit, obviously. When you talk about 40 time (5.04 seconds), that usually conveys to a pass rusher in the NFL,” Kiper said. “The great thing about Epenesa is you can kick him inside on third down. He has an inside presence, he has versatility. He had great production against pretty good offensive tackles late in the year.”

It’s hard to imagine Epenesa sliding too far, given his three excellent years of pass-rush production at Iowa and the NFL’s premium put on defensive ends.

Epenesa’s lowest-possible draft spot for the April 23-25 draft, which for now is still proceeding as scheduled?

“I’d say at worst an early second,” Kiper said.