IOWA CITY, Iowa — Few topics in sports generate interest or speculation quite like player comparisons.
Who plays like whom? Whose style of play reminds you of another player from a generation ago? Coaches do this frequently just to provide a baseline resemblance with reporters and other staffers. Often the example sticks.
When it comes Iowa football, many current Hawkeyes have games that connect eras. Running back Akrum Wadley is similar to Tavian Banks back in the mid-1990s. Wide receiver Matt VandeBerg boasts the speed and pass-catching ability of Kevin Kasper in the early 2000s. Defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore resembles Carl Davis from a few years ago.
Today, we’re going to connect Iowa’s players with their NFL doppelgänger. It could be current NFL stars or those who played two generations ago. For this post, I’m trying to measure Iowa’s players against those with similar builds and styles. Of course, you try to avoid an over-the-top juxtaposition — I’m laying off C.J. Beathard as Joe Montana — but upside and recognizable faces are essential, too.
So here’s how six current Iowa players and five recently departed Hawkeyes compare with NFL players of the past and present.
RB Akrum Wadley — Wilbert Montgomery
At 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds (officially), Wadley has grown into Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz’s preferred dimensions for a running back. When trying to place with whom Wadley compares in NFL history, it needs to be a back who has breakaway speed, nimble feet, the ability to run between the tackles and catch passes from the backfield. The back also needs to fit Wadley’s approximate size.
After looking closely at Tony Dorsett (too small) and Chuck Foreman (too big), Wadley’s best comparison is with former Philadelphia Eagles star Wilbert Montgomery. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Montgomery (5-10, 196) was one of the NFL’s best runners. He played nine seasons and finished with 9,291 all-purpose yards. In 1979, Montgomery rushed for 1,512 yards and led the NFL with 2,006 yards from scrimmage. Two years later, Montgomery ran for 1,412 yards. He helped the Eagles reach the playoffs four consecutive seasons, including the 1980 Super Bowl.
Like Wadley, Montgomery had good feet in traffic, featured blazing speed and ran between the tackles. The more I watch Montgomery, the more I see the resemblance.
DE Anthony Nelson — Ted Hendricks
Nelson, a sophomore, is built like a basketball player with his long, physical frame at 6-7 and 260. He has a quick first step off the edge and collapses on quarterbacks unlike most players his size.
Few players match Nelson’s dimensions on defense — plenty do at tight end — but the player who fits best is former Oakland 3-4 outside linebacker Ted Hendricks (6-7, 222). In the 1970s and early 1980s, players’ weights along the line of scrimmage don’t quite measure with those of today. But Hendricks was one of the most destructive defenders in NFL history. He was an eight-time Pro Bowler and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He won four Super Bowls and nobody symbolized the Raiders of that era like Hendricks. Hendricks had explosive quickness off the edge and was a full-service linebacker.
Now, Nelson has forever and a day to match Hendricks’ accomplishments. But with his size and playmaking potential, that seems an appropriate doppelgänger.
LB Josey Jewell — Mike Curtis
This is another way-back comparison. As a member of two Super Bowl teams with the Baltimore Colts, Mike Curtis (6-3, 232) was one of the meanest middle linebackers in NFL history. He was a rugged run defender and tenacious personality. Known as “Mad Dog,” Curtis had no problem sparring with quarterback Johnny Unitas or leveling a drunken fan who invaded the playing surface during a game. Curtis was a five-time Pro Bowler and a borderline Hall of Fame candidate.
Jewell (6-2, 236) embodies many of Curtis’ no-nonsense characteristics and is a devastating hitter. The comparison came to me last season and I asked Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz about it in December.
“I don’t think he’s punched anybody. … I could see that, yeah,” Ferentz said. “It’s funny. I was a linebacker in high school and college so I used to get Sport Magazine and I had I guess nine pictures up on the wall and Mike Curtis was one of them. No. 32, right, with the Colts? (Willie) Lanier was up there, a couple of other guys from that era. He was a pretty salty player, and Josey is salty for sure.”
G Sean Welsh — Marshal Yanda
It’s almost natural to compare current Hawkeyes to those of the past. Lord knows the Iowa coaching staff does it. For the sake of these comparisons, I tried to avoid it but this example was way too close to ignore.
Sean Welsh has the perfect guard body at 6-3 and 295. Marshal Yanda (6-4, 307) was about the same build at Iowa before leaving for the NFL in 2007. Both are technically sound and nasty enough to smack the taste from your mouth. Yanda is perhaps the NFL’s best offensive lineman the last decade with six straight Pro Bowl appearances. Both have shifted to tackle when necessary to help their team in dire moments. Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz used Yanda’s example when discussing Welsh in 2016.
“I’m not saying that he’s a Pro Bowl guy or he’s at that level,” Brian Ferentz said. “But as a football player, he’s a team-first guy and he’s willing to do things that maybe are a little bit uncomfortable because they come pretty natural to him and he doesn’t give it a whole heck of a lot of thought.”
TE Noah Fant — Raymond Chester
Barely one season into his Iowa career, it’s probably too early to compare tight end Noah Fant with any other player, especially an NFL player. But when watching highlights of former Raiders and Colts tight end Raymond Chester, their abilities are similar.
Fant (6-5, 232) has tight end size and wide receiver skills, something that Chester (6-3, 232) displayed during 12 NFL seasons. Chester caught 364 passes for 5,013 yards and 48 touchdowns and won a Super Bowl with the 1980 Raiders. He could run routes, had downfield speed like a big wide receiver and could block.
Fant has a way to go to earn this comparison, but style of play makes this about the most perfect doppelgänger on this list.
WR Matt VandeBerg — Drew Pearson
Matt VandeBerg has old-world receiving ability in a new-age passing game. He came to Iowa at around 150 pounds and now weighs 195. He can catch any pass from any route, whether he’s wide open or in traffic. VandeBerg is wiry and fast. With the Hawkeyes, VandeBerg has caught 106 passes for 1,302 yards and 8 scores. In 2015, VandeBerg hauled in 65 passes and 703 yards.
Drew Pearson grabbed 489 passes for 7,822 yards and 48 touchdowns in 11 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. Like VandeBerg, Pearson was slight at 6-foot, 184 pounds. He was an undrafted quarterback who switched to wide receiver and became the best pass catcher of the 1970s (Hall of Fame snub be damned).
Former Iowa players
QB C.J. Beathard — Jake Plummer
When many of the NFL draft industrial complex’s “analysts” budge their way into the evaluation game, they immediately make lazy evaluations. Such was the case with quarterback C.J. Beathard, whose style of play inexplicably was linked with former Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins.
I can see the intangible comparisons … maybe. Both are high-character players with strong leadership skills who played in the Big Ten for successful programs. There were subtle differences, too. Beathard’s teammates viewed him more as a man’s man, while Cousins had off-the-charts speaking ability. If Cousins runs for political office, he could swing plenty of voters in his direction — regardless of his political affiliation.
But on the field when healthy, Beathard (6-2, 219) has better lateral movement and a stronger downfield arm. Cousins is more of a traditional drop-back quarterback. A few analysts called Beathard noodle-armed, which is both eye-rolling and laughable. Beathard’s style of play mirrors Jake “the Snake” Plummer, who could bootleg better than most quarterbacks and throw downfield. Plummer also had the on-field “it” factor, which Beathard displayed when he had good complementary pieces in 2015.
New San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan drafted Beathard in the third round three weeks ago. Coincidentally, Kyle’s father, Mike Shanahan, coached Plummer (6-2, 212) in Denver from 2003 through 2006.
DB Desmond King — Antrel Rolle
Desmond King is a hybrid defensive back, capable of playing boundary corner, nickel defender over the slot or high safety. At Iowa, King (5-10, 201) largely was a cornerback but moved over the slot when the Hawkeyes shifted to five defensive backs. He picked off 14 passes and surprisingly lasted until the fifth round when the Los Angeles Chargers scooped him up.
Antrel Rolle (6-0, 202) began his 11-year NFL journey in Arizona, where he played cornerback for three seasons. Rolle then shifted to safety, where he competed for the majority of his career.
Neither player had blazing speed — Rolle recorded a 4.5 40-yard dash time, while King’s was 4.52 at Iowa’s pro day. But both were/are ball hawks. Rolle intercepted 26 passes and earned three Pro Bowl trips. King has the potential to mirror both Rolle’s longevity and impact.
DT Jaleel Johnson — Henry Thomas
In today’s world, defensive linemen weigh more than their predecessors a generation ago. But they occupy the same amount of space in 2017 as they did in 1989.
Johnson (6-3, 316) will play both over the nose (1-technique) and the traditional defensive tackle (3-technique) for the Minnesota Vikings, who drafted him in the fourth round this year. In many ways, Johnson will perform the same tasks as Henry Thomas (6-2, 277) did for Minnesota back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Thomas was a formidable threat at defensive tackle on one of the NFL’s most underrated lines alongside Hall of Fame player Chris Doleman and perennial Pro Bowler Keith Millard.
Johnson has a power game but also displays underrated quickness to get into the backfield. Thomas had the same skill set. He played in two Pro Bowls and finished his career with 93.5 sacks.
TE George Kittle — Tyler Eifert
George Kittle is the most difficult player to find a comparison for simply because he checks a different set of boxes. Kittle (6-4, 247) blocks like a player 20 pounds heavier but he registered the 13th-fastest 40-yard dash time for a tight end at the NFL combine since 1999. Kittle doesn’t have the pass catching resume but he still hauled in 10 touchdowns at Iowa.
Ultimately, the best comparison for Kittle was with Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert (6-6, 250). Both are tenacious run blockers and good receivers. Both had injury issues last season, but both are talented. Eifert is a little taller, while Kittle is a little faster. But both are fierce competitors.
RB LeShun Daniels — Marion Barber
Similarly to Kittle, Daniels doesn’t have a true comparison. Daniels is a power back at 6-foot, 225 pounds but doesn’t have the size to compare with LeGarrette Blount, who weighs 250. Daniels does have decent speed with a 4.5 40-yard dash time, which compares favorably to former Minnesota Gophers running Marion Barber (6-0, 221 pounds). Barber ran a 4.53 at the 2006 NFL Combine.
Daniels is a little more physical than Barber, who is a little more shifty. But both backs have similar size and abilities, which makes the comparison apt.