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Should Iowa Stay or Should Iowa go to the NFL?

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Evaluating the NFL draft hopes of three Hawkeye standouts

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Illinois v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Iowa faces a number of possible defections to the NFL, something of a double-edged sword for any college program. On one hand, the fact that the NFL is interested in multiple underclassmen from one team is a validation of that program’s ability to identify and develop talent, and the presence of multiple NFL-caliber players on a given roster likely means that team experienced some degree of success. On the other hand, losing that talent earlier than expected can be a serious blow to a team’s prospects heading into the following season, especially a program like Iowa that relies on player development to construct competitive rosters.

While three Iowa players have already publicly announced their decisions regarding the NFL draft (Nate Stanley and Alaric Jackson are returning to school while Noah Fant skipped the bowl game to begin his draft preparation), three more Hawkeyes remain on the fence about their NFL futures: tight end TJ Hockenson, defensive end Anthony Nelson, and safety Amani Hooker. Each of these players faces unique questions regarding their viability as professional prospects, their place in the 2019 NFL draft class, and the role they could play on next year’s Iowa team that can help determine whether they should jump to the NFL or return to Iowa City for another year.

TJ Hockenson (Tight End, RS SO)

Hockenson emerged from the shadow of his fellow tight end Noah Fant and established himself as one of the best to the play the position in program history after becoming the first sophomore to ever win the John Mackey Award and being named to multiple All-American teams. Hockenson showed himself to be a versatile weapon at tight end capable of making big plays as a both a receiver and a blocker, and his surprising athleticism, including his deceptive open field speed and his exceptional vertical leap, made him a matchup nightmare for collegiate opponents.

Hockenson’s game projects extremely well at the next level. He has good size for a tight end (6’5, 250 pounds), was arguably the most sure-handed receiver the Hawkeyes had this season and has a work ethic that has been widely praised by coaches and teammates alike. Hockenson’s blocking ability allowed him to average a much higher snap count than Fant who occasionally struggled as a run blocker and should make him an every-down player in the NFL. While the 2019 draft class is littered with talented tight ends, at least one mock draft projects Hockenson as a first round pick and the first tight end to be chosen this April.

Hockenson has very little to prove by coming back to school for his junior year. His presence on the field would do wonders for the Iowa offense in 2019, and another strong season could solidify his legacy as the most dominant tight end in program history. However, another year spent toiling away as an amateur student athlete could also put his professional career at risk; it only takes one play for an injury to occur that could alter a player’s career and deprive him of significant earnings down the road.

There is also the Fant factor to be considered; while defenses were forced to focus their efforts on accounting for both talented tight ends this season, Fant’s departure will leave Hockenson as the primary object of opposing defenses’ attention in 2019, which could result in him taking a step back statistically and give NFL scouts more opportunities to focus on the minimal flaws in Hockenson’s game. Desmond King and Akrum Wadley both saw their draft stocks plummet after returning for their senior season only for opposing coordinators to formulate game plans specifically designed to minimize their impact on the field. The Outback Bowl, which saw Hockenson go without a catch until the fourth quarter, could be a sign of things to come.

Hockenson’s brief career at Iowa has truly been a special one, and the Hawkeyes would be extremely fortunate to see him return to the sidelines next year. However, Hockenson would be best served by following the example set by Dallas Clark sixteen years earlier: dominate on the field, win the Mackey, and go on to a long and fruitful professional career.

Verdict: Go

Anthony Nelson (Defensive End, RS JR)

Nelson holds the distinction of being the only Hawkeye on this list who was also mentioned as a potential early departure at the end of last season. He emerged as Iowa’s premier pass rusher last season and, while sophomore sensation AJ Epenesa stole some of his thunder this year, the junior was still able to put together a strong campaign in 2018, recording 9.5 sacks and being named second-team All-Big Ten by the media.

Nelson has a fantastic frame for an NFL defensive lineman. At 6-7, he excels as a pass rusher, using his long arms to drag down opposing quarterbacks with ease. Nelson also has surprising strength considering his somewhat lithe frame for a defensive end, which he displayed in the clip below by bull-rushing the Nebraska right tackle to bring Adrian Martinez down for a sack:

Like most Iowa defenders, Nelson also has a fantastic motor. This sack against Minnesota (his third of the day) shows the tenacious pass rusher beat two blockers en route to the quarterback by expertly using his arms to detach himself from the hapless Gophers assigned to contain him:

Still, Nelson is not a perfect prospect. He lacks the explosiveness of a player like Epenesa and doesn’t show the type of agility and ability to change directions that NFL scouts typically look for in top defensive end prospects. Furthermore, while Nelson did make a few standout plays in run support during the Outback Bowl, 9.5 of his 13.5 tackles for loss came on passing plays, a clear sign that he could improve upon his ability to make disruptive plays behind the line of scrimmage while defending the run.

However, the biggest factor that may motivate Nelson to return for his senior season is the potentially historic defense line draft class that he stands to compete against if he opts to enter his name into the draft. The 2019 draft class boasts one of the deepest defensive line talent pools in history, and as many as fifteen d-linemen and edge rushers could be selected in the first round. While Nelson would be at risk of becoming an afterthought in an absurdly talent-rich draft class, another year to develop and improve on his quickness and technique could allow his stock to rise significantly in the leadup to the 2020 draft.

Verdict: Stay

Amani Hooker (Strong Safety, RS JR)

No single player had a bigger impact on the Iowa defense in 2018 than Amani Hooker. A standout safety, Hooker displayed unparalleled versatility as injuries forced Phil Parker to deploy Hooker all over the field, occasionally playing him as an outside linebacker or a slot cornerback. Hooker led the team in pass breakups (7), tied his fellow safeties Jake Gervase and Geno Stone for the team lead in interceptions (4), and picked off more passes covering the slot (3) than any player in the nation, a particularly impressive feat considering he was not a full-time slot cornerback. Hooker’s efforts were acknowledged when he was named the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year and was included on multiple All-American lists.

Hooker’s versatility is his biggest draw as an NFL prospect. The Minnesota native can make plays as a ball-hawking safety but is also excellent at bringing down ballcarriers in space and was one of Iowa’s surest tacklers this season. One of the things that makes Micah Hyde such a valuable defensive weapon in the NFL is his ability to effectively cover slot receivers, and while Hooker has yet to display the speed and quick-twitch cover abilities that Hyde showed in college, his prowess as a physical, technically sound pass defender will make him an asset at the next level.

Hooker’s decision to enter or forgo the NFL draft should largely be based on his feelings regarding his role in the newly-minted “Star” position in Phil Parker’s defense. On one hand, another year floating between safety, cornerback, and linebacker could help him further display the versatility that makes him an appealing NFL prospect, and his positionless nature could make him much more difficult for offenses to avoid than a player like Desmond King. However, time spent playing outside linebacker, a position at which Hooker certainly will not take any reps in the NFL, detracts from his development at the safety position at which he will eventually make his living. It is certainly possible that Hooker may not be deployed in this manner as frequently next year; Iowa’s linebackers should improve with another year of experience under their belts, and the departure of Jake Gervase means Iowa may not have the luxury of having three standout safeties on the field at once. Still, early indications are that the star position is here to stay.

Hooker is the hardest of these three to evaluate; he is probably NFL-ready at this point, but his stock could still rise next year if he is able to build upon his stellar junior season. If rumors of Hooker receiving at least a second round draft projection are true then he should jump at the opportunity to turn pro. However, if Hooker projects more as a third-day draft pick, which seems more realistic at this juncture, a return to school and another year of seasoning under defensive back guru Phil Parker may very well be in the cards.

Verdict: (Probably) Stay