With the NFL Draft only a few weeks away and no live sports to keep fans occupied, it’s time to focus on the former Hawkeye players hoping to find themselves employed by an NFL team by the end of April. In this first edition of a three-part series evaluating the draft prospects of outgoing Hawkeye players, we’ll examine two former Iowa standouts who are likely to hear their names called fairly early during the upcoming draft.
Tristan Wirfs (Offensive Line):
Measurables: 6’4, 320 lbs.
40 Yard Dash: 4.85 seconds
Bench Press: 24 reps
Broad Jump: 121 inches
Vertical Jump: 36.5 inches
Three-Cone Drill: 7.65 seconds
Wirfs spent his entire career at Iowa being ahead of the curve. He shouldn’t have been prepared to slide in as the starting right tackle as a true freshman, had no business establishing himself as one of the Big Ten’s best pass protectors as a true sophomore, and few experts believed he would blossom into an All-American as a junior. Now, Wirfs is set to prove the doubters wrong yet again as he eyes a potential top ten slot in the 2020 NFL draft.
Iowa fans have been aware of Wirfs’ impressive physical gifts for a long time, and he showed up on the national radar after breaking fellow strongman Brandon Scherff’s program hang clean record during the offseason.
Just a light 450 for Tristan Wirfs (via @HawkeyeFootball) pic.twitter.com/46fx3HaPNv— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) March 15, 2019
But Wirfs put the NFL on notice with his otherworldly combine performance, which saw him break or match NFL records for vertical and broad jump while running an incredible 4.85 40-yard dash. Any doubts about Wirfs being an elite prospect were officially silenced with that performance – after all, who doesn’t want to draft an offensive lineman who can outjump almost every draft-eligible wide receiver?
Only 16 of the 46 WRs jumped higher than Tristan Wirfs at the NFL Combine.— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) February 28, 2020
Wirfs is no mere workout warrior, though. The powerful offensive lineman was First-Team All-Big Ten, made several All-American teams, and was named the conference’s Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year. Wirfs established himself as an absolute road-grader in the running game, using his strength and agility to open up sizeable holes for Iowa’s backs.
However, pass protection was arguably Wirfs’ greatest strength as a Hawkeye. The talented right tackle allowed pressure on only seven of his 461 pass blocking snaps as a junior, truly an incredible number considering the challenges Iowa had in keeping defenders away from its quarterback last season. Here is Wirfs recording a pancake in pass protection, something which is absolutely NOT supposed to happen.
Wirfs has all the tools to be a successful NFL offensive lineman. His elite strength and lateral quickness allow him to match up well against both speed and power rushers at the next level, and his tenacity and willingness to maul defenders in the run game absolutely jump off the film. He can move the line of scrimmage with ease but refuses to budge when confronted by opposing pass rushers. Some pundits claim that Wirfs suffers from “short arms,” a label which somehow seems to plague every Iowa offensive lineman during draft season, only to never become a problem once they make it to the league. However, worst case scenario, Wirfs moves inside and becomes a dominant guard in the vein of Marshal Yanda and Brandon Scherff.
All things considered, Wirfs is not likely to wait long to hear his name called on draft day. He could go as high as #4 to the Giants and is not likely to fall out of the top ten with teams such as Cincinnati, Jacksonville, and Cleveland (all of whom have serious needs at offensive line) waiting in the wings. Whether he sticks at tackle or move inside to guard, Wirfs will have every opportunity to establish himself as the next star offensive lineman to hail from Iowa.
Draft Projection: Top Ten
AJ Epenesa (Defensive Line):
Measurables: 6’5, 275 lbs.
40 Yard Dash: 5.04 seconds
Bench Press: 17 reps
Broad Jump: 17 inches
Vertical Jump: 32.5 inches
Three Cone Drill: 7.34 seconds
The writing of this draft profile was inevitable as soon as Epenesa announced his commitment to Iowa. One of the most decorated high school recruits to sign with the Hawkeyes in decades, Epenesa wasted no time getting on the field, and even recorded a sack in the first game of the season his true freshman year. This proved to be a strong predictor of things to come, as the talented defensive end racked up 36 tackles for loss and 26.5 sacks over the course of his career.
Epenesa wasn’t a starter for his first two years on campus but followed up an All-Conference caliber sophomore campaign by blossoming into an undeniable superstar as a junior. While Epenesa was slow to adjust to the increased focus from opposing offenses in the early stages of the 2019 campaign, he learned how to overcome this pressure by the end of the season, totaling eight sacks in his final five games despite playing some of his most difficult competition during that stretch. That Epenesa managed to improve both his tackle and sack numbers between his sophomore and junior year despite being the primary target of opposing linemen is frankly remarkable and speaks highly of his resourcefulness and ability to overcome adversity.
After a strong season which saw him earn both All-Big Ten and All-American honors, Epenesa surprised many draftniks with his somewhat pedestrian combine numbers. His 40-yard dash time was slower than one would expect from a supposedly elite edge rusher, and one analyst even went so far as to call his combine performance, “extremely alarming.” With NFL teams increasingly putting a premium on finding speed around the edge, Epenesa’s workout raised some questions about his ability to consistently generate pressure on the quarterback. His questionable ability to matchup against the quicker tackles in the league, combined with his occasional struggles against double-teams, could depress his stock a bit.
But make no mistake, Epenesa remains a high-level prospect who is likely to hear his name called in the first round. He has the strength to overpower defenders,
and has the size to play either on the edge or the interior. Epenesa also uses his arms as effectively as any Hawkeye defender in program history. His upper-body technique is tremendous, and he utilizes his strength and long reach to keep a workable distance between himself and his blocker, which helps him compensate for his lack of elite speed as a pass rusher. And while Epenesa won’t be mistaken for Von Miller anytime soon, his lack of burst never seemed to affect him in the straight-away.
Epenesa could go anywhere from the mid-first round to the early second, though it’s tough to see him falling out of the first given the abundance of teams with picks in the late 20s who could use his services. Epenesa also benefits from his scheme versatility, as he projects as an effective defensive lineman in either a 3-4 or 4-3 alignment and isn’t likely to be passed over due to lack of scheme fit. A few teams might be scared off by his surprisingly average combine performance, but his adaptability, willingness to play team-oriented defense, and consistent production at the college level should still make the late first round his floor.
Projection: Mid/late first round
That’s it for now, but tune in next week to see which Hawkeyes could hear their names called in the middle rounds of the draft.