IOWA CITY, Iowa — The most important day for Iowa’s departing football players takes place Monday when NFL scouts and team officials converge at the football complex for the school’s annual pro day.
Five Iowa players went through the NFL combine earlier this month so pro day is about refining their resumes in workouts and answering any additional questions. For the rest of Iowa’s draft-eligible players, pro day is their only shot in front of a prospective employers. Their workout numbers can help them get on the NFL radar as either draft picks or priority free agents.
Under Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, five different former Hawkeyes were drafted despite not working out at the NFL combine. They include defensive back Jordan Bernstine (2012, seventh round), tight end Brandon Myers (2009, sixth round), center Mike Elgin (2007, seventh round), tight end Erik Jensen (2004, seventh round) and defensive lineman Aaron Kampman (2002, fifth round).
They had varying degrees of NFL success. Kampman played for 10 years, earned 58 sacks and was a two-time Pro Bowl selection with Green Bay. Myers played in 115 games in eight seasons and finished with 199 catches for 1,954 yards and 9 touchdowns. Bernstine played in only one NFL game before he suffered a career-ending injury. Elgin and Jensen competed in camps and on multiple practice teams.
But that’s just the draft picks. Many other players have earned free-agent deals based on their pro day performances. Wide receiver Riley McCarron left an accounting job last spring to compete in Iowa’s 2017 pro day. McCarron ran the 40-yard dash in a scorching 4.36 seconds. He went undrafted, but McCarron signed with the Houston Texans just minutes after the 2017 draft. He ended up on the New England Patriots’ practice squad for most of the season and signed a future contract this offseason.
Offensive lineman Cole Croston followed a similar path. Like McCarron, Croston was a walk-on at Iowa, earned a scholarship and wasn’t invited to the NFL combine. Croston stayed at Iowa to train last winter and showcased his abilities at the pro day.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” Croston said afterward about the pro day. “If it doesn’t work out, I have a finance degree from the University of Iowa, which is a great degree. If it doesn’t work out for football, I should get a job somewhere.”
Croston landed a free-agent deal with the New England Patriots following the draft. He won a spot with the Patriots’ 53-man active roster all last season through the Super Bowl.
Likewise, 222-pound running back LeShun Daniels used a 4.57 40-yard dash at his pro day to earn a free-agent contract with New England. Daniels landed on a pair of practice teams and eventually signed with the Washington Redskins’ active roster midway through the season and finished with 3 rushes for 14 yards.
Other players in the past have parlayed pro-day performances into free-agent deals and ultimately into roster spots. Former Iowa walk-on offensive lineman Matt Tobin started at both guard and tackle at Iowa but was not invited to the 2013 NFL combine. His pro day numbers were terrific, including a 4.9 40-yard dash at 303 pounds. Tobin signed with the Philadelphia Eagles and started 21 games with the Eagles in four seasons before he was traded last fall to Seattle. Last week, Tobin signed a one-year deal with New England.
|Akrum Wadley||Running back||Yes|
|James Daniels||Offensive line||Yes|
|Sean Welsh||Offensive line||Yes|
|Ike Boettger||Offensive line||No|
|Boone Myers||Offensive line||No|
|James Butler||Running back||No|
|Matt VandeBerg||Wide receiver||No|
|Tyler Kluver||Long snapper||No|
Pro day is vital for Iowa’s combine performers, as well. Cornerback Josh Jackson, who is considered a likely first-round pick, appeared awkward during some of his drill work at the combine. He has a chance to improve on those numbers at pro day and alleviate lingering concerns. Perhaps linebacker Josey Jewell and running back Akrum Wadley can improve their 40-yard dash times and boost their stock, as well.
But pro day is even more important for Iowa’s participants who didn’t attend the combine. Offensive linemen Ike Boettger and Boone Myers were considered likely NFL prospects before their senior seasons were derailed by injuries. They have a chance to show they are healthy and worth drafting. With his experience (40 starts), size and speed, linebacker Ben Niemann could open eyes like McCarron did last year. Running back James Butler was considered a solid prospect before transferring to Iowa last summer and then injuring his elbow. Fullback Drake Kulick, linebacker Bo Bower, safety Miles Taylor, receiver Matt VandeBerg and long snapper Tyler Kluver have a chance to prove they are worth taking to camp.
If the NFL combine is like a job fair for the top-300 prospects, Iowa’s pro day is like an actual job interview. For many of the former Hawkeyes, it’s a way to enhance their draft stock. For the others, it’s a chance to make a great first impression. Either way, it’s the culmination of everything for which they’ve worked their entire lives.