Hawkeye Hype High for the 2020 NFL Draft

Story by Zach Weigel

AP Photo-Mark Humphrey

AP Photo Steve Helber

We’re only a little more than a month removed from the 2019 NFL draft; however, that hasn’t stopped sports analysts from prognosticating the 2020 NFL Draft. The Hawks had a solid showing in the 2019 NFL Draft with four juniors being taken. Tight ends TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant were selected 8th and 20th, respectively while ‘cash’ (hybrid linebacker-corner) Amani Hooker and defensive end Anthony Nelson were taken in the 4th round. To boot, 5 seniors were picked up as free agents: defensive end Parker Hesse (projected as an NFL tight end/H-back!), wide receiver Nick Easley, defensive lineman Matt Nelson, and offensive lineman Ross Reynolds and Keegan Render. So, altogether 9 hawks from last year’s team will have their shot to make it big in the pros.

Still, according to some prognosticators, the 2020 NFL Draft could be ae epic year for the Hawks in the draft. Under Coach Ferentz the Hawks have had 9 first-round draft picks in 20yrs. That’s less than one a year. In fact, this year was the first time that the Hawks ever had more than one first-round draft pick under Coach Ferentz. Only twice before have the Hawks had more than one first-round draft pick; twice under legendary Coach Hayden Fry. Once in 1997 when cornerback Tom Knight and offensive tackle Ross Verba went 9th and 30th, respectively and once in 1986 when Chuck Long, Ronnie Harmon, and Mike Haight went 12th, 16th, and 22nd, respectively. [I focus on the first-round because this far out, (and rightfully so?) most way-to-early NFL Draft projections only go so far as projecting the first round of the draft.]

Ergo, with a star-studded team taking shape for the coming the season, there’s a chance the Hawks could tie, or perhaps even break the school-record for most first-round draft picks. (Sorry but I don’t think the Hawks will compete with the record of six first-round draft picks from one school set by Miami in 2004.)

Rotoworld, NBC’s online sports entity recently released their 2020 Mock NFL Draft and three Hawkeyes landed on the big board: defensive end AJ Epenesa and bookend offensive tackles Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson. All three will be juniors this upcoming season, all three are mammoths of men, and all three have shown elite-level play. Let’s dig into each player a bit more, and then speculate a bit on other potential players that could work their way into first-round draft consideration.

 

There’s a whole lot of hype building about AJ Epenesa given his tenacious play, impressive statistics as a backup, and high rating during recruitment. And Rotoworld is really buying into that hype. They have Epenesa as the number two pick behind Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Last year in the defensive end rotation Epenesa accumulated 10.5 sacks—good for a tie for 13th in the country—despite only playing about half of the team’s defensive snaps. He also forced 4 fumbles to go along with his 16.5 tackles for loss and 37 total tackles. At 6-5, 277lbs Rotoworld and other scouting services are salivating. Thor Nystrom of Rotoworld says this about Epenesa, “Believe the hype, folks. I’ve seen the monster. And the monster is real… The freak athlete is no longer a youngster. Now he’s the vet. Good luck trying to block him, Big 10!” Drawing comparisons to NFL star JJ Watt, if Epenesa can produce at a similar level to last year, he’ll be a sure-fire top-10 pick with some gaudy statistics due to a big uptick in plays played.

Coming in 20th and 27th in Rotoworld’s Mock Draft are Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs. Nystrom says, “He [Wirfs] and Jackson are one of the most exciting tackle tandems we’ve seen in college over the past five years.” At 6-7, 320lbs Jackson has the ideal size for an NFL left tackle. Meanwhile, at 6-5, 320lbs Wirfs could play tackle or guard in the pros, similar to the transition that All-Pro former Hawkeye Brandon Scherff has taken.

What’s stopping Jackson and Wirfs from being talked about as the top tackles in the class instead of the third and fourth tackles taken? Both have been suspended during their first few years in the program for various violations. NFL teams don’t like to take risks, so the off-the-field issues could be hindering both player’s prospects. Nevertheless, the highly reputable scouting service Pro Football Focus is very high on both players giving them outstanding ratings. If you follow Hawkeye social media—especially on Twitter—you’re sure to stumble upon clips of Wirfs and Jackson delivering pancake blocks or driving defenders 10yds downfield. With both, consistency—along with staying healthy and out of trouble—will be key.

Now, who else could presumably sneak their way into the first round of the 202 NFL Draft for the Hawks? There’s certainly a few standout candidates that could see their draft stock skyrocket much like TJ Hockenson’s did this past year.

Perhaps the most likely candidate for draft stock ascension is senior quarterback Nate Stanley. Stanley is viewed as a legitimate NFL prospect in the eyes of many, just not a first-round caliber player given his inconsistent play. Talent isn’t the issue with Stanley. He’s got everything the scouts look for—the size at 6’5 and 240lbs, the arm, and the know-how to command a pro-style offense. But, at times Stanley has a tendency to get flustered and to overthrow the deep ball. If Stanley can become more consistent with the deep ball and be poised under pressure, then he could see himself climb into first-round consideration. Let’s hope he can because it will also likely mean the Hawks will have a great year!

A few other players could breakout this year too. With all of the hype surrounding Epenesa, Chauncey Gholston could be in for a stellar senior season. If teams decide to double or triple team Epenesa, Gholston could wreak havoc from the other end of the defensive line. Geno Stone is another junior who might have a decision to make about entering the NFL Draft. Similar to Amani Hooker from a year ago, Stone has the skills and acumen to be a solid NFL caliber defensive back. A good year and an amazing pro-day could vault him up the draft board. And lastly, maybe Matt Hankins or Michael Ojemudia will come out of nowhere like Josh Jackson did a few years ago. After all, pundits are prognosticating this year’s Iowa defense as one of the best in the country. If that holds true, chances are that Epenesa could have a defensive teammate join him in the first-round.

I’d be remiss not to reiterate that Epenesa, Wirfs, and Jackson will all be juniors this coming season and therefore would have to declare early for the NFL Draft. So, it’s certainly possible that any one of the three or some combination of the three could decide to stay and play out their senior season in 2020. It’s also entirely possible that one of the players gets significantly injured and earns a medical redshirt for the season. Let’s hope not, but it’s not out of the question. But, if I had to project the 2020 NFL Draft right now, Epenesa, Wirfs, Jackson, and even Stanley should be considered potential first-round prospects. Nobody should book a plane ticket for Vegas on April 23rd, 2020 (the draft will be held in Vegas this coming year). But they might want to think about reserving a hotel room on the Vegas strip, just in case.

 

*Stats and info courtesy of: www.nfl.com/draft/hi…

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