IOWA CITY, Iowa — Four Iowa players realized their NFL dreams last weekend when they were selected in the NFL draft. Four others earned NFL opportunities as free agents.
How do they fit with their new teams? What are the free agents’ chances of sticking? Here’s an early look.
QB C.J. Beathard, third round (104), San Francisco 49ers
In what most observers consider a surprise, the San Francisco 49ers traded up to draft former Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard late in the third round Friday night. Many analysts had a late-round grade on Beathard, yet he was the sixth quarterback taken in the draft.
The 49ers brass flew to Iowa City within the last month and conducted a private workout with Beathard, the grandson of legendary NFL general manager Bobby Beathard. They came away impressed. In a news conference, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan indicated Beathard’s modest statistics last year were a result of the offense and those around him, not the quarterback’s capabilities.
“Just because there’s an incompletion, just because you don’t get the touchdown doesn’t mean it’s always the quarterback’s fault,” Shanahan told reporters. “You’ve got to watch to make sure people are getting open, how the rhythm of their offense is with protections and receivers. Are guys separating for him? What are they asking him to do and how good does he do that? You go through an entire game and does he do his job? I think he does his job very well. I think he gives his team a very good chance to win, and I think he showed that a lot more in 2015 when his team had a lot more opportunities to win.”
John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan discuss selecting QB C.J. Beathard.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) April 29, 2017
Beathard threw for nearly 900 fewer yards last season than he did in 2015, when he guided the Hawkeyes to 12 wins, the Big Ten West Division title and a Rose Bowl berth. Last season, Beathard 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). Last year, he passed for 1,929 yards and 17 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions. Beathard completed 56.5 percent of his passes.
“I just saw him battle through adversity,” Shanahan said. “You look at the numbers and they weren’t the same as the previous year, but the numbers are something that I very rarely look at.”
Instead of drafting second to kick off the fourth round on Saturday, San Francisco jumped up five spots Friday night to grab Beathard.
“C.J. Beathard was a guy that we had really zeroed in on,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said on ESPN. “We had some intel that the third or fourth round was where some other teams valued him. So rather than waiting and holding on into the fourth, we jumped in and we got him so that we could sleep well and Kyle Shanahan could finally have an offensive player.”
Coincidentally, in 1979 the 49ers were coming off a 2-14 season and also drafted a quarterback late in the third round with modest statistics. That quarterback completed 54.2 percent of his passes for 2,010 yards, had 10 touchdowns and 9 interceptions, and won eight regular-season games. That quarterback was Joe Montana.
The comparisons between Beathard and Montana started well before the 2017 NFL Draft. While calling the Iowa-Minnesota clash in 2015, BTN analyst Matt Millen, who won a Super Bowl with the 49ers in 1989, favorably offered a juxtaposition. On one play, Beathard felt the rush up the middle, shifted to his left and found tight end Henry Krieger-Coble for a 32-yard gain. The next play, Beathard followed with a 26-yard scramble.
“This is all C.J. Beathard,” Millen said that night on BTN. “Let me tell you something, maybe it’s the 16; I don’t know what it is. He looks like Montana to me. He just has that feel. He’s in control. Things slow down for him, the ball comes out, he sees the whole field. I tell you what, this kid’s pretty good.
“He is a difference-maker, and he’s in control.”
Coincidences aside, Beathard will have little pressure to start for the 49ers this season. Shanahan said the goal was to develop Beathard as the 49ers’ third-team quarterback behind starter Brian Hoyer and backup Matt Barkley. While the goal is for Beathard eventually to compete for playing time, this isn’t the year to do so.
DT Jaleel Johnson, fourth round (109), Minnesota Vikings
No former Iowa player has a more perfect opportunity to potentially start right away than defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson. In the spot the 49ers vacated to select Beathard, the Minnesota Vikings used it to scoop up the first-team All-Big Ten defensive tackle.
Minnesota starting defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, a first-round pick in 2013, suffered a right knee injury last year, and his future is uncertain. The other starting tackle in the Vikings’ 4-3 scheme is Pro Bowl selection Linval Joseph. Minnesota boasts one of the top defensive end collections in the NFL, with Pro Bowl player Everson Griffen, team sacks leader Danielle Hunter and veteran Brian Robison.
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) April 30, 2017
“Jaleel Johnson is a tough, strong, inside run defender,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer told reporters. “He’ll probably be a swing guy. He’s more of a power rusher than he is a speed, quick rusher, but he’s very explosive coming out of his hips, very strong at the point of attack.”
“I went there myself, early in camp and watched him practice,” Vikings director of college scouting Jamaal Stephenson told Vikings.com. “He is a big man. He is strong. He is athletic. We feel that he has value. He will fit in well in that D-line room and let the chips fall where they may.”
Johnson (6-foot-3, 316 pounds) started his final 27 games at Iowa. Last year, Johnson picked up 7.5 sacks in Iowa’s two-gap scheme and added 10 tackles for loss. He earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after gaining a sack, a safety and 9 tackles in a 14-13 upset of No. 3 Michigan in November.
The Vikings also have an eye on the future with several defensive tackles’ contracts expiring after next season, Zimmer said.
TE George Kittle, fifth round (146), San Francisco 49ers
George Kittle could not have found a better opportunity to play right away than in San Francisco. The 49ers tried to trade starting tight end Vance McDonald, who led the team with 4 touchdown receptions, during the draft. McDonald and Garrett Celek combined for 53 catches, 741 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns.
Kittle (6-4, 247) can work several roles, from in-line blocker to a move tight end role to the flex or the slot. New coach Shanahan used multiple formations and incorporated a ton of tight ends when he was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator last season.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) April 29, 2017
“Kittle was a player as I indicated that we grew to really like and particularly where he was, he was a guy that we wanted to get,” Lynch said. “We thought it was a tremendous value.”
It’s a stretch to project a mid-round player to start as a rookie, but on a team that finished 2-14 last year and has ushered in a new front office, coaching staff and scheme, it’s possible. With Kittle’s full-service capabilities, speed and tenacious blocking ability, it could happen.
CB/S Desmond King, fifth round (151), Los Angeles Chargers
Desmond King’s shocking fall from potentially late first round to the fifth does not deter from what he could do for the Chargers. He’s got versatile skills that could aid him as a perimeter corner, inside at a nickel position (which he often played at Iowa) or at free safety.
"He arrives in a bad mood" Gus Bradley goes inside the film room ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/Lk4DvN9Scu
— Los Angeles Chargers (@Chargers) April 29, 2017
Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said he plans to use King at multiple spots, adding he also likes King’s intangibles.
“A couple [of his] best traits [are] his competitiveness and toughness,” Bradley told Chargers.com.
With a new defense and coaching staff with the Chargers, King will have the chance to compete for playing time. His special teams’ skills could be essential on either returns or on coverage units.
“I am someone who is going to get out there and give it my all,” King told Chargers.com. “I’ll bring leadership, and I’ll [mix it up] in run support. Then I want to get an opportunity on special teams to show what I can do as a returner.”
Four Iowa players will have opportunities as undrafted free agents this year. Any undrafted player is a long shot, and the same goes for these four. But it appears they’ll be in a camp this summer.
LESHUN DANIELS, RB, NEW ENGLAND — Daniels perhaps has the best shot of the undrafted rookies because of the location and situation into which he’s heading. The Patriots are unlikely to re-sign big-body running back LeGarrette Blount, which means that role is available. New England drafted only four players (including no running backs) and took on a ton of veterans through trade. The 222-pound Daniels could fill a need and play cheaply for the Patriots.
COLE CROSTON, OL, NEW ENGLAND — Similar to Daniels, Croston is in a spot in which he could earn a position because of need at offensive line and his salary-cap cost. The Patriots drafted offensive linemen in the third and sixth rounds, respectively, but Croston could play all five offensive line positions plus take on a blocking tight end role. Croston also has experience in a pro-style offense and has faced numerous NFL-caliber defenders in the Big Ten. Again, you can’t predict whether he will make the team, but he’ll have an opportunity.
RILEY MCCARRON, WR, HOUSTON — McCarron is in a place where four receiver spots are pretty well sealed. But most teams keep five or six. He will have to distinguish himself by competing on special teams through returns or coverage, which could be to his advantage. If he can establish a niche there, he’ll enter final conversations during late August.
GREG MABIN, CB, TAMPA BAY — The Buccaneers didn’t draft a cornerback, which allows Mabin to at least compete. If Mabin, who didn’t play in his final four games at Iowa because of a broken right foot, can stay healthy during offseason workouts and into training camp, he might contend for one of the last roster spots behind two veteran cornerbacks.