football Edit

NFL Draft preview and predictions

At least four Hawkeyes should expect to hear their names called at the NFL Draft.
At least four Hawkeyes should expect to hear their names called at the NFL Draft.

One year ago it seemed like there was a pretty good chance that the Iowa football program would have a pair of first round NFL draft picks for the first time since 1997.

That was until it didn’t happen as Josh Jackson and James Daniels fell to the second round and found employment with the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears.

One year later, the Hawkeyes are on the doorstep of not only having two first round picks in the NFL Draft, but perhaps being the first college program in history to have two tight ends picked in the first round.

Iowa has had incredible success when it comes to seeing their football players drafted by the NFL. When a Hawkeye goes off the board it will mark 43 straight years that an Iowa player has been drafted. That alone is an amazing accomplishment for the program and a testament to the work of Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz.

Under Ferentz, 66 Iowa players have been selected in the NFL Draft and seven have been picked in the first round. If things go to form on Thursday night in Nashville, that number could be ready to go to nine.

Let’s take a look at the Iowa player draft prospects and where they might end up over the course of the next three days.

T.J. Hockenson should be the first Hawkeye off the board on Thursday night.
T.J. Hockenson should be the first Hawkeye off the board on Thursday night.

T.J. HOCKENSON

Combine measurements – 6-foot-5 and 251 pounds. Ran a 4.7 in the 40 yard dash. 37.5 vertical jump.

Iowa numbers – 73 receptions for 1,080 yards and 9 touchdowns.

Awards – Won the John Mackey Award and Ozzie Newsome Award. Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year in the Big Ten. First team All American by the AFCA and USA Today. First team All Big Ten by media.

The rise of T.J. Hockenson is pretty remarkable.

He wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, but he was a record setter at the prep level. Hockenson redshirted in his first season with the Hawkeyes and had a very promising redshirt freshman year. Even after that season, no one really thought it would be possible that he would have a decision to make about his future after his third year with the Hawkeyes.

Yet that’s how it ended up after he caught 49 passes for a team high 760 yards and 6 touchdowns. Hockenson was torn about his decision, but after receiving feedback from the NFL advisory committee the choice was obvious, he had to move on to professional football.

That decision has turned out to be a wise one based on the evaluations from scouts. He’s been compared to everyone from Rob Gronkowski to Travis Kelce to Jason Whitten as a blocker and receiver at the tight end position. Basically, scouts feel he’s the best combination of those two attributes in this year’s draft at tight end. It hasn’t hurt his stock that former Iowa tight end George Kittle set the NFL record for receiving yards in a season by a tight end.

Mock drafts are somewhat in line when it comes to Hockenson. Some have him going as high as 7th overall to Jacksonville and others have him potentially landing at the 12th pick to Green Bay. Not many have him falling below that level.

PREDICTION: Hockenson to Buffalo with the 9th pick in the first round.

Noah Fant should be off the board in the second half of the first round.
Noah Fant should be off the board in the second half of the first round.

NOAH FANT

Combine measurements – 6-foot-4 and 249 pounds. Ran a 4.5 in the 40. Vertical jump of 39.5. Broad Jump of 127 inches.

Iowa numbers – 78 receptions for 1,083 yards and 19 touchdowns.

Awards – First team All Big Ten by the coaches. Third team All American by the Associated Press.

There’s no question that Noah Fant absolutely crushed it at the NFL Combine in February. Iowa fans knew he probably would after already knowing he ran a 4.5 in the 40 and had a vertical jump of 42 inches the previous year in testing.

He then went out and crushed the NFL Combine.

Put those numbers with his production at Iowa, which included a school record 19 touchdown passes as a tight end and you have basically the perfect player for the modern player for the pass happy NFL.

We all kind of knew that Fant would be heading to the NFL this year going all the way back to his sophomore season when he caught 30 passes, 11 of them for touchdowns.

It is interesting that Fant hasn’t gained as much traction towards the upper half of the draft this year. He could still end up there, but based on reading some of the assessments of NFL draft experts the past few weeks, there are some questions about his hands and dropped passes during his Iowa career. There are also concerns about his blocking and his willingness to play physical football along the line of scrimmage.

Still, there are very few players at the tight end position that can stretch the field and make plays in the red zone like Fant has proven he can do. One thing to keep an eye on, there are a few NFL draft folks hearing that Fant might slide to the second round.

PREDICTION: Fant to Green Bay with the 30th pick in the first round.

Amani Hooker should be off the board in the second round of the NFL Draft
Amani Hooker should be off the board in the second round of the NFL Draft

AMANI HOOKER

Combine measurements – 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds. Ran a 4.48 in the 40 yard dash and had a vertical jump of 37 inches.

Iowa numbers – 125 tackles, 3.5 for loss, and 1 sack. Six career interceptions and one returned for a touchdown.

Awards – Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year in the Big Ten. First team All Big Ten by the media, coaches, and Associated Press. Second team All American by the Associated Press and USA Today.

When Amani Hooker gets selected by an NFL team there’s one highlight that will certainly be played. That play is the interception that he returned for a touchdown in Iowa’s one-sided win over Ohio State. That’s really the moment where the world kind of discovered that Hooker was a special talent.

Like Fant and Hockenson, Hooker is leaving Iowa early. In many ways his story is kind of like Hockenson in that I don’t think many of us thought that he would be in this position heading into the 2018 football season. He was going to play in the NFL and be drafted, but this was probably a year earlier than expected.

Hooker jumped in as a true freshman and showed promise, but it was his second year where his star began to rise. However, an injury in the second half of the season kind of slowed down his assentation as an NFL prospect.

This past year really showed just how good Hooker is as a defensive back. He was playing really well at safety, but in the middle of the year, Iowa moved him to the “Cash” position, which put him right on the line of scrimmage. It was a pretty significant sacrifice from Hooker, but it proved that not only is he a very good safety, but he could essentially play in more challenging coverage situations. And it really changed the course of the season for the Hawkeyes, which was important from a team perspective.

Hooker isn’t Desmond King as a player. They play different positions, but I think NFL teams have learned a lesson from King’s drop in the NFL Draft. They won’t let Hooker drop to the third day of the draft and I could see him playing not only safety, but as a fifth defensive back in coverage in the NFL.

PREDICTION: Hooker goes to New England in the 2nd round with the 56th pick in the draft.

Anthony Nelson should come off the board in the fourth round.
Anthony Nelson should come off the board in the fourth round.

ANTHONY NELSON

Combine measurements – 6-foot-7 and 271 pounds. 4.82 in the 40 yard dash and a 35.5 inch vertical jump.

Iowa numbers – 119 tackles, 31 tackles for loss, 23 sacks.

Awards – Second team All Big Ten by the coaches and third team by the media.

It was a little surprising that Anthony Nelson opted not to return for his senior year. This year’s NFL Draft is pretty loaded as far as defensive ends, so many thought he might decide to return for one more year and improve his draft stock.

But, Nelson is a fourth year junior and the feedback he received from the NFL led him to decide it was time to move on.

There’s no question that Nelson has been very productive the last three years. He arrived on campus as a work in progress. Nelson had all the natural tools, but he needed to add weight and strength. He probably got to the point where he was a true impact type player in the 2017 season when he had 9.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in 11 games.

Nelson might not have ideal quickness off the edge, but his added element is that his 6-foot-7 and uses his size really well and can get his hands on passes at the line of scrimmage. In his redshirt sophomore season, he deflected five passes.

With so many defensive ends in this draft, many teams will probably fill that need in the first couple of rounds, so it might be a wait until Saturday for Nelson, but he should hear his name called early in the day.

PREDICTION: Nelson to the New York Giants in the 4th round at pick #108 in the draft.

I think that will probably be it for Iowa in the draft. It’s interesting that all four who are expected to be drafted are underclassmen. There will be several seniors who will get scooped up very quickly as free agents. Those players include Jake Gervase, Ross Reynolds, Keegan Render, Nick Easley, Parker Hesse, Miguel Recinos, and Matt Nelson.