What the Denver Broncos are getting in Iowa cornerback Riley Moss

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

Riley Moss has been underestimated throughout his football career.

Moss didn’t even start for his eighth-grade football team. He was a two-star, grayshirt recruit at Iowa. Yet by the fifth week of his true freshman year, there he was, a slender, 18-year-old cornerback from Ankeny, Iowa, who was making his first college start.

Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck underestimated Moss that day, repeatedly calling passes his way. Sure, some connected (future first-round pick Rashod Bateman was among the receivers Moss was guarding). But Moss got the last laugh, intercepting the Gophers twice in the Hawkeyes’ 48-31 win.

What people have constantly overlooked in Moss is that he’s an exceptional athlete with elite ball skills. Moss never drops a pass; he collected 11 interceptions during his five-year Iowa career, returning three for touchdowns. Moss had a fantastic showing at the NFL Scouting Combine, with a 39-inch vertical leap, 10-foot-7 broad jump and 4.45-second 40-yard dash.

Those springy, athletic skills helped Moss get drafted by the Denver Broncos on Friday in the third round of the NFL Draft with the No. 83 overall pick.

He was the fourth Hawkeye chosen, and for just the second time in the Kirk Ferentz era, Iowa had four draft picks in the first three rounds (joining the 2010 draft): No. 13 Lukas Van Ness (Green Bay Packers), No. 18 Jack Campbell (Detroit Lions) and No. 34 Sam LaPorta (Lions) and now Moss.

Iowa defensive back Riley Moss defends during against South Dakota State on Sept. 3, 2022, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

Moss said in recent interviews that most teams he talked to want him to play cornerback, though some scouts preferred him at safety. Moss has long stated that he wants to become the NFL’s first white cornerback to regularly start since Jason Sehorn in 2002. Once again, he will likely be underestimated in that quest.

The positives

Moss has great anticipation and was taught well in defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s schemes to read the quarterback’s eyes. He also is a willing tackler and a playmaker with an eye for the ball. Moss also has faced and overcome adversity. He bounced back from some early-career struggles and missed time to become the Big Ten’s defensive back of the year in 2021.

According to Pro Football Focus, Moss has the highest career grade of any cornerback who was eligible for the 2023 NFL Draft at 91.9. (No. 5 overall pick Devon Witherspoon of Illinois was third at 91.0.)

The concerns

At 6-feet-0½, 195 pounds, Moss can struggle against taller receivers. Every once in a while, he’ll guess wrong and give up a big play.

Chad Leistikow’s final thoughts

One of Moss’ most impressive qualities is that he doesn’t care what others think. He is a trash talker and extremely confident. In a summer 2022 interview with the Register, he said, “Either you’re going to like me or you’re going to hate me, and I could care less whether you hate me. I’m just going to be myself.”

And that was/is Moss in a nutshell. Those who appreciate what he brings to the table − energy and play-making ability − will love him. Those who pre-judge him and dwell on his mistakes won’t. At minimum, Moss will carve out a steady role on special teams in the NFL and has the upside to break that white-cornerback stigma.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.