Why Dane Belton may become the next unsung Iowa football prospect to star in NFL
Former Iowa safety Dane Belton will receive a life-changing phone call this week during the NFL Draft.
Which team picks him? That's to be decided.
But what is known? Belton is feeling like himself again.
The good news is that physically he's finally feeling like himself again.
Like other NFL Draft hopefuls, Belton spent the first four months of this year preparing for the NFL's Scouting Combine, his school pro day and private workouts and interviews with NFL teams.
But before he began training for that, he was hit hard by illness.
A flu bug hit Iowa's football team particularly hard in the final weeks of the 2021 season. As a result, Belton, who began the season around 205 pounds, lost 10 pounds and finished the season underweight. He bulked back up while simultaneously preparing for the make-or-break workouts that awaited him at the combine.
His hard work paid dividends.
Among safeties, Belton finished the NFL combine with the fifth-highest vertical leap (36½ inches), sixth-fastest 40-yard dash time (4.43 seconds) and finished seventh in broad jump (10 feet, 3 inches) and the three-cone drill (7.01 seconds). Physically, he's back to his play weight and cut a percentage of his body fat in the process.
Now with his pro career about to begin in the coming days, the ball-hawking defensive back is ready for the rigors ahead.
Belton, in an interview this week with the Des Moines Register, said he's back to "football training," as opposed to training for team workouts. By the end of the week, he'll have a new team and become the second Hawkeye in a soon-to-be a growing club.
Belton's technical position title is safety but for Iowa he was known as a "Cash." It's also referred to as "Star" in other schemes as a hybrid safety/linebacker. Iowa introduced the position in 2018 and their first player there, Amani Hooker, just completed his third NFL season with the Tennessee Titans.
Now Belton will get a shot to replicate his success in the league.
Belton and Hooker never played together but are close friends. Hooker's been a resource to Belton throughout the process. And like he studied him prior to his arrival at Iowa, Belton's film study of Hooker continues as he's pursuing a similar career arc.
"Him being the first cash at Iowa, now I'm trying to follow in those footsteps," Belton said. "Even with me talking to the Titans, I played that position following him so they know what type of player they'd be getting, teams know what type of player they'd get looking at Amani and how successful he's been.
"Watching how he's grown in the league is kind of what I want to do honestly, just come in and find a role early and just continue to grow. He's made a great career for himself and I want to do the same."
Why Belton is equipped for modern-day NFL
Over the last several years, positions such as the cash have grown from occasional usage to an almost every-down necessity. Spread offense concepts are becoming more common in the NFL, and defenses are adjusting by adding players who both have the speed to cover skill players but are physical enough to play against the run.
Hybrids like Belton have the opportunity to affect the game in several ways by constantly staying around the ball as a result of playing near the line of scrimmage. His 46 tackles, seven pass deflections and five interceptions last season serve as evidence of the versatility NFL teams are seeking.
"Every team I've talked to really loves how I can play multiple positions," Belton said this week. "Being able to play that nickel position, a lot of teams have talked about that's almost their base package especially with the tight ends in the league now. Being able to do multiple things really intrigues teams and hopefully leads to success for me."
Belton's versatility isn't limited to his on-field play, he studies a variety of current NFL safeties. Outside of Hooker, Belton watches Jamal Adams for his physicality near the line of scrimmage, Tyrann Mathieu for his instincts and Derwin James for athleticism.
With his athletic traits and production, Belton enters the draft as someone who should go in the middle rounds on Friday or Saturday.
"Belton plays with heady reaction skills," Dane Brugler, an NFL Draft expert for The Athletic, wrote in his Iowa player projections. "His eyes lead him to the catch point where he can make plays on the ball naturally. (He) takes calculated risks, coming off his coverage to overlap and make a play in another area. Trusts his angles to maintain proper spatial relationships in zone (and) comfortable turning and matching the physicality of tight ends in man. Avoids penalties (zero in 2021, two in his career)."
Latest Phil Parker product to surprise in NFL?
Belton's looking to become the second cash drafted at Iowa but would be the 17th defensive back under defensive coordinator Phil Parker in his 20-plus year tenure. His development track record is one of the main reasons why Belton chose Iowa as a three-star recruit 2019. Three years later, Parker's influence is a big reason why Belton will get drafted.
"I knew with my approach to the game and intellectual ability that was the perfect guy to be with," Belton said. "When he came on my house visit in high school I knew he'd get the most out of me. He cares and wants the best of you. You might get a pass breakup but he's always looking for you to get that interception because he wants the best."
Mentally is perhaps where Belton grew most during his Iowa career. He describes the progression in Parker's system as understanding personal assignments then the defense as a whole and finally, understanding what the offense is trying to do. The second and third stages didn't come until after Belton's freshman season but over the next two seasons he frequently picked Parker's brain about offensive formations and tendencies.
His football knowledge has been one of the most impressive aspects about him during the pre-draft process. It's common for NFL teams to test players by giving them formations and having them explain play design and assignments. In his sessions, Belton didn't just explain his responsibility but took it a step further and gave a full defensive breakdown.
"I feel like every team I talked to was impressed with how I understand everyone on the defense," Belton said. "When I was able to draw up the linebackers' responsibilities and what gaps they're in, defensive line gaps, certain stunts that we run on blitz packages and things like that, I feel like it shows my growth in the mental aspect."
Belton has had a busy last month
Belton stated at Iowa football's pro day in March that he met with over 20 teams during the pre-draft process. That busy schedule has only continued in April. NFL teams conduct top-30 visits for their priority prospects. Belton likened those visits to an official visit in college where players visit the facility, meet with team personnel and watch team practice.
Belton had top-30 visits with the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He also met with the Bengals, Broncos, Eagles, Jets and Giants again via zoom. Belton noted that teams frequently ask about his schedule at Iowa and how it was very similar to how his future NFL team is structured.
As for his NFL Draft weekend plans, Belton will watch with a small group of family and friends in his native Tampa, Florida. Wherever his next destination is, he feels like he's more ready.
"Everyone talks about how the game is more mental than physical," Belton said. "And as safeties at Iowa we're taught to read the offense, understand concepts and things like that. That's what I feel like has translated for those guys and I hope will translate for me."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com.