The numbers are startling. Eighteen Hawkeyes have heard their names called at the NFL Draft over the last three seasons. The Lions’ choice of Riley Reiff with the 23rd pick in this year’s draft marked the third-straight season the program has had a first-round pick. Seventy-five of 82 senior starters between 2002 and 2011 signed NFL free agent contracts. And 48 Iowa football players have been selected in the draft over the last 10 years.
No one can deny the ability of Iowa’s coaching staff to find overlooked talent, develop it and prepare it for the next level. Former walk-ons like Robert Gallery and Dallas Clark went from nobodies to first-round picks. Reiff, while a quality recruit out of high school, was a three-star prospect who Kirk Ferentz and his staff molded into a First Team All-Big Ten performer and one of the top offensive tackles in this year’s draft class. And on, and on and on.
The consistent flow of Hawkeyes to NFL gridirons is a sign of a healthy program. Save for the 2008 and 2009 recruiting classes, Ferentz has kept the Hawkeyes well-stocked with quality players who have helped give Iowa a reputation as a school that produces blue-collar, technically sound athletes. NFL executives and talent evaluators go gaga over the University of Iowa. Mel Kiper’s affection for Hawkeye draft prospects is so off the charts it borders on unhealthy.
But why does such an NFL factory have mediocre seasons like the last two? Iowa is coming off back-to-back 7-5 regular-seasons, and those types of seasons just don’t do it for Hawkeye fans anymore. School record-tying numbers of NFL draft picks the last two years should have helped net Iowa at least a couple more than the 15 combined wins it posted in 2010 and 2011.
Iowa lost to a lowly 2011 Minnesota team that did not even have a single player drafted over the weekend. NOT ONE! And Iowa State, which has certainly upgraded its talent over the last few seasons, had just one draft choice, but still managed to defeat Iowa in triple overtime last season.
Even the 2008 Outback Bowl champion Hawkeyes, who finished 9-4 overall and No. 20 in both major polls, were a bit of a disappointment. The argument about which Ferentz-era squad has been the best often centers around the 2002 and 2009 Orange Bowl teams. But the 2008 edition is easily the best based upon NFL talent. It’s hard to fathom, but 24 of 44 players from that season’s final two-deep have played in the NFL and/or were drafted.
There is no requirement for number of future NFL players needed in order to field a Big Ten championship-caliber roster, but it sure helps to have them. It’s not just a coincidence that six members of the national champion Alabama Crimson Tide were chosen in the draft, or that the SEC had the most picks of any conference with 42 selections. Teams that have a lot of NFL talent typically win lots of games.
That’s what makes Iowa’s relative struggles the last two years particularly perplexing. Is it a matter of Ferentz and his staff getting out-coached, a simple lack of execution, dumb luck, not enough dynamic talent at the skill positions or a combination of all of the above? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer.
Considering the incredible run Ferentz has had over the last 13 years, I don’t think his approach to recruiting and player development needs any changes. Iowa is bound to have more 10-win seasons in the future if it continues to churn out players who perform on Sundays. Judging by the recruiting victories the Hawkeyes have had in the 2010 – 12 classes, more NFL players are on the way.
As far as potential 2013 draft picks, James Vandenberg, Keenan Davis, James Ferentz and Micah Hyde all have a good shot to be selected next April. C.J. Fiedorowicz is a possible early entrant if he has the breakout season that many expect. In sum, Iowa’s three-year streak of having six players drafted will come to an end. However, Iowa has a slew of young offensive linemen that could end up in the NFL and three junior linebackers that may play at the next level as well.
As long as Ferentz is around, NFL scouts will also have an eye on what’s going on in Iowa City. The draft picks will keep coming. Let’s hope the wins do, too.