Iowans and the NFL Draft

Ah, the NFL Draft. It’s not a “made for TV” event; they drafted for decades before ESPN decided to put its cameras in the room. It is, however, a “transformed by TV” event. Never mind the good chance that half the players who shake hands with the commissioner will be physical trainers and high school assistant coaches three years from now; the draft is all about potential and hope, and if there’s anything TV people can sell, it’s potential and hope.

So we watch, many of us. We watch to see if our favorite teams will land the player of our dreams–while dreading the possibility that they might screw everything up. We also love to watch other teams screw up; who doesn’t love a good train wreck, after all? And we watch to see if or when any of our old favorites from college get the chance to hear their names called.

That brings me to Iowa State. Most years, the draft conversation in this state would start with Iowa, but the factors that led ISU to a better 2012 record than the Hawkeyes will also affect how the state views the 2013 draft. Neither school has a first-rounder, and it would not be surprising to see no mention of the state until Day 3, but the Cyclones stand a better chance of hearing one of their own called first.

That chance, of course, revolves around the Killer K’s, linebackers A.J. Klein and Jake Knott. For Cyclone fans, there’s little difference between the two; they have similar size and spent the past four seasons as ISU’s tackling machines. In the eyes of draft experts, and presumably some NFL teams, Klein is the better prospect. He can play inside or outside linebacker, showed good coverage skills in college and was the Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year his junior season. Knott is seen as someone better suited to outside linebacker, and more importantly, has an injury history.

Several months ago, ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper pegged both players as mid-round prospects that could go as high as the third round. Mock drafts that go that deep are few and far between, but the third round seems too high at this point, although it does bear watching Friday night. Of the four full-draft mocks I’ve seen, Klein has been listed in the fifth round three times and the seventh round once. Knott wasn’t listed at all.

Of course, going undrafted isn’t the end of the world. ISU cornerback Leonard Johnson was supposed to be a 3rd-round pick last April. He went undrafted, signed as a free agent with Tampa Bay, and became a starter halfway through the season. Klein is almost certain to be drafted at this point. I hope Knott gets to hear his name called as well, but once you get into the late rounds, you start seeing teams take chances on some strange selections. Sometimes it’s better for a late-round prospect to go undrafted, then get to pick where he wants to sign and angle for the best situation possible. Either way, Knott will get every chance to prove himself in someone’s camp.

There’s also an outside chance defensive tackle Jake McDonough could hear his name called late on Saturday. The all-conference DT has heard from several teams running 3-4 defenses who think he may be a fit in their scheme. Whether anyone likes him enough to draft him is another matter, but ISU has had its share of D-linemen carve out space in the NFL in recent years. Wideout Josh Lenz is another longshot candidate for Saturday; he put up some eye-popping measurables at the Iowa State Pro Day, but in a deep wide receiver draft, Lenz is more likely to get a free-agent shot in someone’s camp.

As for the Hawkeyes…there isn’t much you can do to sugarcoat the 2012 season, and perhaps the final insult is that Iowa, after having several notable first-round picks in recent years, would be extremely lucky to have more than one player taken this year.

The one Hawkeye expected to be taken is cornerback Micah Hyde. He was a sixth-round pick in three of the four full-mocks I saw, and a seventh-rounder in the other. According to ESPN.com, Hyde grades out as a fairly average corner, but they also made a point of listing his October arrest in his profile. He may be one of those players who’s wondering whether or not it would be better to not be drafted, and then get to pick from offers as an undrafted free agent.

The only other Hawkeye to appear in any mock draft is wideout Keenan Davis, who popped up in the seventh round in one draft. This is just another example of why the end of the draft is even more of a crapshoot than the beginning; teams will tell you they’ve done due diligence on all their picks, but it really comes down to a bunch of players that all look very similar. Davis can probably play in the NFL, whether he’s drafted or not, but like everyone else in the late-round/undrafted pool, he’s just hoping someone notices.

There is one other factor worth mentioning when it comes to the Hawkeyes. Kirk Ferentz isn’t everyone’s favorite coach in Iowa City these days, but he’s still very respected in NFL circles, and his program has a reputation for developing talent, especially offensive linemen. Iowa doesn’t have any blue-chip linemen in the draft, but if you’re going to use a late-round pick on the O-line, and you’re familiar with Ferentz, you’re probably going to take another look at his players. That could mean someone takes a late-round flyer on center James Ferentz, who has both bloodlines and Iowa pedigree going for him, even though the knock on him is that he’s way undersized. Tackle Matthew Tobin’s name might also pop up in a couple of war rooms on Saturday, although it’s a long way from the war room to the draft in New York.