Opinion | Hawkeye storylines to watch as the NFL season kicks off

Tristan Wirfs starting in Tampa, George Kittle taking the field after a huge contract extension, Brandon Scherff playing on the franchise tag — former Iowa football players are in intriguing situations all over the NFL.

San+Francisco+49ers%27+George+Kittle+%2885%29+makes+a+catch+against+Jacksonville+Jaguars%27+Barry+Church+%2842%29+in+the+first+quarter+at+Levi%27s+Stadium+Sunday%2C+Dec.+24%2C+2017+in+Santa+Clara%2C+California.+

TNS

San Francisco 49ers' George Kittle (85) makes a catch against Jacksonville Jaguars' Barry Church (42) in the first quarter at Levi's Stadium Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017 in Santa Clara, California.

Robert Read, Pregame Editor


Pieces of red and gold confetti sprinkled down from the sky in Miami to conclude the 2019 NFL season which culminated in the Kansas City Chiefs rallying to defeat the San Francisco 49ers, 31-20, in Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2.

Yes, that game was only seven months ago. You’d be forgiven if you thought otherwise.

In the time since, we’ve seen league Commissioner Roger Goodell host the 2020 NFL Draft from his basement (with great success), no preseason games (something I never thought I would miss), and a Seattle Seahawks player get released after trying to sneak a woman disguised in team gear into the team’s hotel (really).

These are only some instances of what has been an unprecedented NFL offseason as the league tries to move forward during the pandemic. The 2020 NFL season kicks off Thursday as the Chiefs — including former Iowa linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Ben Niemann — begin their title defense against the Houston Texans in front of a limited capacity crowd at Arrowhead Stadium.

How the season is impacted by COVID-19 will undoubtedly be a headline in the NFL for the next several months. Caught up in all the chaos this season are dozens of Hawkeye football players now making a living as professionals.

Twenty-nine former Iowa players are on NFL rosters to begin the season. Another three are on practice squads, and several more are free agents.

Here are some storylines to watch for former Hawkeyes in the NFL this season:

Fant and Hockenson are prepared to break out

Iowa’s pair of top-20 draftees showed glimpses of their potential as rookies last season, and both are set up for breakout years in their sophomore campaigns.

T.J. Hockenson set the NFL record for most receiving yards in a tight end’s first game with 131 yards in his debut. His rookie season with the Detroit Lions was shortened because of multiple injuries, including a concussion and a lingering problem with his ankle.

Noah Fant led all rookies at the position with 562 yards despite inconsistent play from his passers.

The two former All-Big Ten tight ends should be top options for their respective offenses this season. For my sake, hopefully Hockenson is. I just drafted him on my fantasy team (not that anyone cares).

Backup quarterbacks have never been more important

C.J. Beathard is the third-string quarterback for the 49ers and Nate Stanley is one of two on the Minnesota Vikings’ practice squad. In a normal season, keeping this many signal callers would be questionable.

Not in 2020.

If a team’s starter is forced to miss time because of COVID-19, a team needs options — several of them. Beathard has been with the 49ers since 2017 and is familiar with the system. Stanley was selected by Minneosta in this year’s draft, and by keeping him around it appears the team likes what it has seen from the big-armed signal caller.

RELATED: George Kittle comes in at No. 7 on NFL Network’s Top 100 Players of 2020 list

Now the highest-paid tight end in NFL history, George Kittle is set up for another special season

Kittle signed a massive five-year, $75 million contract extension with the 49ers this offseason, making him the highest ever paid at his position. The former Hawkeye goes into 2020 looking for his third consecutive season with over 1,000 receiving yards, a rare accomplishment for a tight end.

The distractions are out of the way now for Kittle; he got his contract. Now, he can continue to overpower defensive ends in the run game and outrun defensive backs in the passing game.

Strong in the secondary

Micah Hyde, Michael Ojemudia, Josh Jackson, Desmond King, and Amani Hooker.

That’s not a bad group of former Iowa defensive backs who now have prominent roles in NFL secondaries. Hyde is one of the most underrated defenders in the league and has settled into a leadership role with the Buffalo Bills.

Hooker is reportedly looking at more playing time for the Tennessee Titans in his second year, and rookie Ojemudia should play right away in subpackages for the Denver Broncos. King, a former All-Pro, can play anywhere in the secondary and is heading into an important contract year.

Jackson has been inconsistent since the Packers selected him in the second round of the 2018 draft, and getting on the field will be a hurdle for him. Last season, he played less than 10 percent of snaps. When he has been on the field the past two seasons, he’s been targeted by opposing passing games. It’s likely a make-or-break year for the corner in 2020.

Geno Stone is another former Hawkeye now in an NFL secondary, but I’ll get to him later.

Playing on the franchise tag

Brandon Scherff, who was named to the Big Ten Network’s All-Decade team over the summer, is now playing on the franchise tag for the Washington Football Team.

A right guard, Scherff is a three-time Pro Bowler. He’s also dealt with season-ending injuries the past two years. In his sixth season in the league, the former top-five pick is making just over $15 million this season. He could be up for a big pay day if he stays healthy and continues to perform as one of the best interior offensive linemen in the league.

Josey Jewell — the man in the middle

The Broncos have had their share of injuries before the 2020 season has even had a chance to begin. That includes multiple casualties at inside linebacker, which means Josey Jewell could be on the field a lot this season.

RELATED: Tracking former Hawkeyes after weekend NFL roster cuts

“The Outlaw” (as he was known as an All-American linebacker at Iowa) already has some starting experience with the Broncos. The Decorah native is listed as one of the team’s starting inside linebackers going into the season.

Jewell graded out as an above average player in his first two seasons in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. His ability in coverage is partially what caused him to slide to the fourth round of the 2018 draft, but as a sure tackler whose instincts have been praised, Jewell should be a mainstay on the field in early-down situations.

Wirfs starting immediately

Former Hawkeye and 2019 Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year Tristan Wirfs slipped a little on draft day. But everything seems to have worked out for offensive tackle out of Mount Vernon.

The 13th overall pick’s rookie deal is fully guaranteed and worth $16.23 million over four years, with a fifth-year option for the 2024 season. Wirfs is penciled in as the starting right tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he will be tasked with protecting future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady.

Old faces, new places

Some of the veteran former Hawkeyes who are suiting up for a new franchise this season to keep an eye on:

  • Mike Daniels, defensive lineman, Cincinnati Bengals
  • Christian Kirksey, linebacker, Green Bay Packers
  • Adrian Clayborn, defensive lineman, Cleveland Browns
  • Bryan Bulaga, offensive tackle, Los Angeles Chargers

Warning: do not underestimate Geno Stone

After being under-recruited out of high school, Stone went on to become an All-Big Ten defensive back for Iowa. Analysts questioned his decision to leave the Hawkeye State early and NFL teams passed on him until final round of the draft, but he still made the Baltimore Ravens’ 53-man roster.

It may not be right away, and it may only be on special teams, but Stone seems to always find a way to exceed his expectations.

As for the people doubting him, Stone, in an interview I did with him before the draft, said he didn’t want to see them stop talking.

“Keep doing it,” Stone said. “That’s something that keeps me motivated. People keep doubting me, and I’ve been proving them wrong my whole life.”

Facebook Comments