2016 wasn't a banner year for Iowa Hawkeyes at the NFL Draft despite the success on the field. We predicted some Draft picks last year. We'll try to do the same again this spring for next year. Let's jump right in.
Iowa's long one-year drought of 1st-round picks will likely end next year. Desmond King will try to do what nobody has done in college football history and repeat as the Thorpe Award winner. King was thought early in the process to be a 1st round pick in this 2016 Draft but opted to return to Iowa for his senior season. CBS Sports has King as the top DB prospect going into 2016 which is no surprise. He was as high as the third-best prospect behind Jalen Ramsey and Vernon Hargreaves this year before declaring that he would be returning to Iowa. King could work his way into the Top 10 picks next year.
The next Hawkeye off the board could be quarterback C.J. Beathard. He finished his junior season as 2nd team All-Big Ten and among the Chicago Tribune Silver Football Award finalists. He may begin the season preseason 1st team all-Big Ten and is currently considered the 2nd best QB prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft, according to CBS Sports. Connor Cook was just drafted in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft and Beathard has a better arm and better legs. Iowa's offense may not lend itself to otherworldly numbers for Beathard, but he does have all the tools that NFL scouts like. Beathard might have a first round ceiling, given next year's weak QB class. Seeing him drafted anywhere in the first three rounds wouldn't be too much of a surprise.
Next, tight end George Kittle is poised for a big senior season for the Hawkeyes. Once a skinny wheel-route option at tight end, Kittle has grown into an NFL body. He won't get all the attention in the Big Ten like King and Beathard since Jake Butt has also returned for his senior season (at Michigan), but Kittle could battle Butt for first team all-Big Ten honors in December. He runs extremely well and showed last season that he can block at the Big Ten level. Kittle could hear his name called in the middle of the NFL Draft next spring.
Jaleel Johnson is a former four-star prospect that has reshaped his 300 pound body at Iowa and never lost his explosive burst. He's incredibly difficult for offensive linemen to handle one-on-one and will see a lot of double teams this season. With a banner senior year, Johnson could go anywhere in the first three rounds of the draft -- he has that much potential. If he has even an average year he's still likely selected on the final day of the NFL Draft (rounds 4-7). CBS Sports has Johnson as the sixth best defensive tackle prospect currently. Former Hawkeye Carl Davis was a third round pick to the Baltimore Ravens. Johnson is a better player than Davis and has the same girth, although he lacks some height. A better comparison might be Mike Daniels, a fourth round pick for the Green Bay Packers. Johnson, at 6'3" and with Daniels-like power oozes all kind of potential.
Cole Croston didn't start the season at tackle last year but was the "next man in" when Ike Boettger suffered injuries. Croston has managed to stay in the lineup and is now set to begin 2016 as Iowa's starting left tackle. Starting left tackles at Iowa usually get attention in the NFL Draft -- especially tackles with two years experience under Kirk Ferentz. Croston took awhile to get up to 300 pounds but now that he's there he's likely worked himself into a late round draft pick, possibly in rounds 5-7.
Iowa has another experienced corner opposite of Desmond King in Greg Mabin. He gets a lot of attention from opposing offenses as King dominates the other sideside of the field and Mabin has improved a lot since being pulled at the Taxslayer Bowl in early 2015. Mabin is a big corner and is at his best in run support. He's not the fastest player on the field and will need strong numbers at Iowa's Pro Day to prove that he's fast enough for the next level. He'll show up on a lot of film as every team studies Desmond King. Mabin could be a late round option, possibly in the 6th or 7th round.
As always, there should be plenty of free agent signings after the NFL Draft, too. If not drafted, Croston and Mabin will surely get a tryout on a roster. LeShun Daniels is another player that should get a shot somewhere. Daniels will need to to hold off Akrum Wadley for carries and prove that he can stay healthy and productive in his senior season. Matt VandeBerg is faster than most think and could attract some free agent interest after the draft next year. Finally, a huge body like Faith Ekakitie could get a tryout, too, if he has a strong senior season as a rotational option at defensive tackle.
The 2015 NFL Draft was a very poor one for former Iowa Hawkeyes -- Austin Blythe was the only Hawkeye selected and we had to wait until deep in the seventh round (pick #246) to hear his name called. It seems like 2015's poor NFL Draft showing will be more of a blip than the beginning of a trend, though. We shouldn't have to wait as long to hear an Iowa player's name called next year at the NFL Draft -- and we should see a lot more than just one player drafted. One of the most exciting things about Iowa's 2015 success was that so much of it was built on the success of underclassmen. Many of those underclassmen will be back as seniors in 2016, so hopefully they can help guide to another successful regular season before getting a chance to fulfill their NFL dreams in the draft next year.