IOWA CITY, Iowa — For every bona fide high-round draft pick Iowa produces, the Hawkeyes churn out similar NFL-ready players with more difficult paths to the pros.
This year, Iowa has two likely first-round selections in cornerback Josh Jackson and center James Daniels. Linebacker Josey Jewell will get a call early in the draft, while running back Akrum Wadley and guard Sean Welsh also are almost guaranteed selections.
Other former Hawkeyes’ immediate futures are less certain. Linebacker Ben Niemann started 40 games and was a productive, versatile player, yet he was not invited to the NFL combine. Fullback Drake Kulick was among the toughest, most physical blockers at his position last season. Long snapper Tyler Kluver was accurate at a position that’s undervalued — until the ball sails over a punter’s head.
These three players will take winding routes to the next level. Niemann still could become an NFL draft pick. Kulick is likely to sign a free-agent deal immediately following the draft. Kluver needs a break from just one team.
Linebacker Ben Niemann
If one player seemed like an outright snub by the NFL combine, it was Ben Niemann. He was a three-year starter with a skill set that translates to the next level.
As Iowa’s outside linebacker, Niemann finished his career with 201 tackles — 15.5 for loss — plus a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. He defended 12 passes and intercepted 2 passes.
While Niemann didn’t dwell on missing the combine, it did provide him with motivation the last few months.
“Obviously I’d rather be there than watching on the couch at home,” Niemann said. “It is what it is. I had a shot to just show myself in front of every team [at pro day].”
Niemann (6-foot-3, 235 pounds) did just that last week. His three-cone time of 6.84 seconds would have ranked third at the combine among outside linebackers. Niemann’s 40-yard dash time of 4.6 seconds would have finished 10th, and his vertical jump of 33.5 inches would have ranked 12th. If he would have competed as an inside linebacker, his comparisons would have been even better.
If the combine forgot about Niemann, some NFL clubs have not. His versatility has led to several discussions with scouts and team officials.
“I’ve probably been in contact with 10 or so teams,” Niemann said. “Just a couple of meetings on the white board and in the film room. Just different teams see me in different spots, which is fine. Some see me as a guy who can put on weight and play inside. Some see me as a Sam ‘backer [strongside linebacker]. So it depends from team to team.”
NFL defenses use sub-packages for about 70 percent of their plays and like at Iowa, Niemann is suited for any role from covering tight ends in the slot to battling offensive linemen in the box. He also can play special teams.
“I’ll do whatever I can to get on the field or make a roster,” Niemann said. “Hopefully I can get an opportunity and put my best foot forward.”
Fullback Drake Kulick
Fiery and physical, Drake Kulick brought a nasty disposition into action in his two years as a starter at Iowa. He touched the ball only 3 times during his senior season, but he scored twice. His only rushing attempt resulted in a 1-yard score to win the Pinstripe Bowl last December.
But Kulick’s value to NFL teams won’t have anything to do with his scoring prowess. Standing 6-1, Kulick now weighs 250 pounds. He’s a powerful blocker and has played on all four special teams at Iowa. Kulick would need to do the same in the NFL.
Although Kulick never earned a scholarship at Iowa, he likes his chances of sticking with an NFL team.
“I don’t know if I would necessarily call myself a long shot to make it in the NFL,” Kulick said. “Luckily for me, there are several fullback positions open in the NFL this year — several teams that don’t have one on their roster. Another thing that is good for me is the fact there aren’t … I don’t know a good way to say this, I don’t feel that I am lesser than any of the guys that I’m competing against for the job. That’s why I don’t necessarily feel like I’m an underdog.”
According to Ourlads Scouting Services, about 58 combined running backs and fullbacks land on NFL rosters. NFL Draft Scout ranks Kulick as the 15th-best fullback prospect. That gives him a good chance to land in a camp. As for earning a roster spot, Kulick touts his intangibles as much as his physical attributes.
“I would like to consider myself as somebody who’s really tough and will bring a level of toughness to the team and somebody who will come to work every day and make sure I get my job done to the best of my ability,” he said. “I would say that the tape I’ve put together over the last two years speaks for itself.
“I don’t think anybody doubts my abilities as a fullback. Maybe people doubted my ability as an athlete. I hope that going forward I can silence the doubters there.”
Long snapper Tyler Kluver
No player faces a more difficult road to just get in a camp than long snapper Tyler Kluver. Rarely are long snappers drafted and only a few positions each year open up. If teams are set at the position, they seldom sign another long snapper even for competition in training camp.
Perhaps nobody has studied the NFL landscape at his position the way Iowa’s former long snapper has. Kluver said that, on average, fewer than three new faces appear at each specialist position each year. He knows that Houston Texans long snapper Jon Weeks is the shortest long snapper at 5-10, and Kluver remains one of the smallest.
Kluver (5-10½, 235 pounds) has gained 20 pounds since the end of the season by drinking 1,000 calories a day of chocolate milk, of which he said is “not fun.”
Ourlads Scouting Services lists the total number of specialists earning spots in camp at 28 with 24 signed as undrafted free agents. As accurate as Kluver was with the Hawkeyes, he’s not listed among the top NFL prospects at long snapper.
“If you find the very limited few long snapper class rankings out there, my name is nowhere to be found,” Kluver said. “That’s OK.
“I came in [to pro day] wanting to prove … that I was the best long snapper in the nation physically and snapping wise, and I felt like I did that. I don’t want to come off as like cocky or arrogant, but as a long snapper goes, I’ve always tried to compete with the linebackers and consider myself an athlete more than anything. I think if you put me up against any other long snapper athletically, I think I’m at the top or near it. Long snapping, there’s minute details between guys. There’s not a whole lot of difference between the top guys. I would put myself up there.”
While some highly sought free agents, as Niemann could be, could have multiple suitors after the draft, Kluver might get one phone call. That means much of his research on long snappers might not matter. In the end, all Kluver wants is a chance.
“If I have multiple choices, then I can choose where I go,” he said. “But honestly right now I hope I get one call, and I’ll be pretty excited if that happens.”