IOWA CITY, Iowa — Only two Big Ten programs have produced more NFL draft picks the last decade than the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Ohio State (57) and Penn State (38) are the only teams to boast more selections than the Hawkeyes (36) over the last 10 years. This year, most NFL draft analysts project four Iowa players will be selected. Another five or six players either could get picked late or sign free-agent contracts immediately following the draft.
Here is a final attempt to predict where the Iowa players will end up this weekend, both in the NFL draft or as free agents.
CB/S Desmond King
In 2015, Desmond King earned the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back and was a first-team All-American. He returned for his senior year and was tabbed a consensus second-team All-American. He finished his career with 14 interceptions — including three for scores — and a school-record 51 career starts. He’s the only Big Ten player in at least the last 20 years with more than 12 interceptions and 1,500 kick/punt return yards.
Most analysts slate King as a second-round pick. He’s projected as a cornerback for zone defenses or to move to safety for the rest.
PROJECTION: Arizona, second round, 45th overall. The Cardinals incorporate both man and zone coverages, and King is versatile enough to play both. He also has special teams value as both a returner and a hitter.
TE George Kittle
No Iowa player’s stock has soared quite like George Kittle’s has in recent months. Before the NFL combine in March, Kittle was considered a late-round prospect. Then he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds, ranking third among tight ends and tied for 13th-best all-time at the position. He finished third in the broad jump at 11 feet and was sixth in the vertical jump at 35 inches. That sent NFL personnel and scouts scurrying to review his video, and they saw Kittle’s ferocious blocking skills. He caught 48 passes for 737 yards and 10 touchdowns during his career. He started 17 games and played in 49 at Iowa, missing two games as a senior because of a midseason foot sprain.
PROJECTION: Chicago, third round, 66th overall. Kittle has a high floor, meaning teams know what they’re going to get. The Bears need a full-service tight end in the worst way, and Kittle’s all-around skills and attitude fit what John Fox is trying to install with his team.
DT Jaleel Johnson
Jaleel Johnson was a wrecking ball against No. 3 Michigan last year after registering nine tackles, a sack and a safety. He picked up Big Ten defensive player of the week honors after that 14-13 upset victory. At season’s end, Johnson was named first-team all-Big Ten after leading Iowa with 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss. He started his final 27 games at Iowa and finished his career with 12 sacks and 18 tackles for loss.
PROJECTION: Detroit, third round, 85th overall. The Lions could use help in their 4-3 defense, and Johnson could pair with second-year tackle A’Shawn Robinson to form a young, tenacious tandem inside.
QB C.J. Beathard
C.J. Beathard was considered perhaps the top senior quarterback entering the 2016 season. Whether he struggled or Iowa’s depleted receiving corps held him back, Beathard did not impress last season. He threw for nearly 900 fewer yards than he did in 2015. He still led Iowa to eight wins and boasts the best winning percentage in Iowa history for a quarterback with at least 20 victories (21-7). Beathard ranks sixth all-time at Iowa in touchdown passes (40) and total offense (5,991) and eighth in passing yards (5,562).
PROJECTION: Minnesota, fifth round, 170th overall. The best-case scenario for Beathard is to find a home with an established quarterback with low pressure. The Vikings have a veteran starter in Sam Bradford, and Beathard could fill a nice backup role.
OL Cole Croston
Cole Croston’s body transformation at Iowa has been impressive. He arrived as a 225-pound walk-on and built himself into a 315-pound tackle. Croston combined for 18 starts over his final two seasons at both left tackle and right tackle. He was named honorable mention all-Big Ten as a senior despite missing four games with a high-ankle sprain. At Iowa’s pro day, Croston worked at center and has position flexibility, ranging from interior offensive line to possibly a blocking tight end role.
PROJECTION: Denver, seventh round, 252nd overall. With Iowa’s offensive line pedigree and Croston’s flexibility, it makes sense for a team to pick Croston if nothing else but to give the defense good looks in training camp.
RB LeShun Daniels
Combining both size (222 pounds) and speed (4.5 40-yard dash time), LeShun Daniels could garner attention late in the draft or as a priority free agent. Daniels rushed for 1,058 yards his senior season, and ranks 16th in career rushing yards (1,895). He scored 19 career touchdowns and ran for more than 100 yards in six games. After a 158-yard, 2-touchdown performance against Illinois last November, Daniels was named Big Ten co-offensive player of the week. Daniels has off-the-charts intangibles, which should elevate his stock.
PROJECTION: Cleveland, priority free agent. If Daniels makes it through undrafted, he’ll have his pick of several squads.
DB Greg Mabin
Greg Mabin started 35 games, most of them opposite Desmond King, before breaking his foot in practice and missing the final four games of his senior year. In three seasons, Mabin intercepted 3 passes and made 144 tackles. He has long arms and speed, which make him an attractive free agent.
PROJECTION: Kansas City, free agent. The Chiefs like press coverage and that could illuminate Mabin’s skill set better than a zone-based scheme.
WR Riley McCarron
Riley McCarron barely registers on the NFL draft boards, despite catching 42 passes for 517 yards and 4 touchdowns last year. Additionally, he returned a punt for a touchdown at Illinois last November. But his 40-yard dash time (4.36 seconds) and vertical jump (40.5 inches) at Iowa’s pro day would have ranked third at the NFL combine. It’s likely NFL scouts would consider signing McCarron on those numbers alone.
PROJECTION: Green Bay, free agent. With McCarron’s speed and toughness, he’ll have a shot to compete on special teams.
DT Faith Ekakitie
Faith Ekakitie rotated with Johnson and Nathan Bazata at defensive tackle and played starter-like snaps the last two seasons. At Iowa, Ekakitie competed in 34 games and started three late in his senior year. In 2016, Ekakitie finished with 39 tackles, including 2 for loss. He broke up 2 passes and recorded 2 quarterback pressures.
PROJECTION: British Columbia, first round, Canadian Football League. Ekakitie, who grew up in Toronto, is projected as a first-round pick in Canada, which has quotas on American football imports. He also might have a shot at an NFL tryout or sign a free-agent deal.