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Hawkeyes in the NFL: Defensive Player Training Camp Primer

As we enter week one of the NFL season, there are still 29 former Hawkeyes on active rosters.

Buffalo Bills v Pittsburgh Steelers
Can Micah Hyde get back to the Pro Bowl in 2020?
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

While the Big Ten and PAC-12 won’t be playing football this fall, the NFL is planning to move forward with their season as previously scheduled. That means Iowa fans will still have an opportunity to enjoy rooting for former Hawkeyes this fall.

In total, there were 36 former Hawkeyes on 20 different NFL rosters entering training camp this summer. As the cut deadline came and went this weekend, the number fell to 29 former Hawks in the NFL.

Here’s a look at where to find all the former Hawkeyes on defense this season.

Adrian Clayborn, DE
Cleveland Browns

Defensive end Adrian Clayborn is finding his way in a new home this season. After signing a 2-year deal with $6M back in March, Clayborn is a newly minted member of the Cleveland Browns. The former Hawkeyes is entering his 10th season in the NFL and his third team in three years. Clayborn spent four seasons in Tampa Bay after being drafted in the first round by the Buccaneers in 2011, then found a home in Atlanta for three seasons before heading to New England for a year and back to Atlanta last season.

In 2020, Clayborn figures to be veteran depth for a Browns defense that includes some star power off the edge, including Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon.

Mike Daniels, DT
Cincinnati Bengals

Like Clayborn and Bulaga, defensive tackle Mike Daniels is in a new home for 2020. After seven seasons in Green Bay, Daniels was with the Detroit Lions in 2019. This season, he’ll make it three teams in three years as he joins the Cincinnati Bengals on a 1-year, $2.7M contract. Daniels’ 2019 was riddled with injuries, limiting him to only nine games and just two starts. He looks to bounce back in Cincy where the former Pro Bowler will be competing for a spot alongside Geno Atkins in the middle of the defensive line.

Carl Davis, DT
Jacksonville Jaguars

Defensive tackle Carl Davis is entering his 6th year in the NFL. After appearing in 28 games in 2015-2016, things have slowed a bit for Davis. Despite 12 career starts, the former Hawkeye has appeared in just 8 games over the last two seasons and had a single tackle last year. Heading into 2020, Davis made the roster cut in Jacksonville, but will start the year serving a 4 game suspension for violating the league’s performance enhancing substance policy.

AJ Epenesa, DE
Buffalo Bills

After being selected #54 overall in this year’s draft, A.J. Epenesa is looking to make an early impact in Buffalo. The former Iowa star fell out of the first round after putting up less than stellar combine numbers, but early camp reports seem to indicate like so many Hawkeyes to come before him, Epenesa is going to be a steal for the Bills.

Entering week 1, Epenesa is listed second on the Bills’ depth chart at left defensive end behind seventh year Stanford product Trent Murphy. Look for Epenesa to be solidly in the rotation all year.

Jake Gervase, S
LA Rams

Former Iowa safety Jake Gervase is entering his second season with the LA Rams. Gervase was cut last weekend and signed to LA’s practice squad. We’ll see if Gervase can work his way into a role with the Rams.

Anthony Hitchens, LB
Kansas City Chiefs

Linebacker Anthony Hitchens has had no trouble working into a role in Kansas City. After four seasons in Dallas, the former Hawkeye has spent the last two seasons in KC, winning a Super Bowl last year with the Chiefs. Entering his seventh season in the NFL, Hitchens is again expected to be the starting middle linebacker for the defending world champs.

Amani Hooker, S
Tennessee Titans

Safety Amani Hooker is entering his second season with the Tennessee Titans after appearing in all 16 games in his rookie campaign and recording 20 tackles.

Heading into 2020, Hooker is slated to be the second string free safety in Tennessee behind fifth year starter Kevin Byard.

Micah Hyde, S
Buffalo Bills

Fellow safety Micah Hyde is on the other end of that equation. Entering year eight in the NFL and year four in Buffalo, Hyde is yet again set to be the starting free safety for the Bills. The former Pro Bowler has started every game he’s played in while in Buffalo and racked up 72 tackles in 2019 to go with an interception. Look for another big year in 2020.

Josh Jackson, CB
Green Bay Packers

Corner Josh Jackson is entering his third season in the NFL, all with the Green Bay Packers. After being taken in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft, Jackson has seen his role diminished a bit in Green Bay. In 2019, Jackson recorded 11 tackles in 14 appearances for the Pack. Entering 2020, he’s slated to be the backup left corner behind fourth year corner Kevin King.

Josey Jewell, LB
Denver Broncos

The Outlaw is entering year three in Denver and looking for his breakout. Things are trending in the right direction after former starting linebacker Mike Davis was cut over the weekend. The move cleared the way for a new depth chart for the Broncos - one that puts Josey Jewell as a starting inside linebacker.

Jewell is coming off a 2019 that saw him rack up 38 tackles and 1.5 sacks. As a starter in 2020, those numbers are sure to grow.

Jaleel Johnson, DT
Minnesota Vikings

Like Jewell, defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson is looking to make the leap in 2020. Entering year 4 in the NFL, Johnson is coming off the best year of his career. In 2019, he totaled 29 tackles and 3.5 sacks for the Minnesota Vikings. Now the former fourth round pick is locked in as the starter in Minnesota alongside Shamar Stephen.

Desmond King II, CB
LA Chargers

Former Thorpe Award winner Desmond King is entering his fourth season with the Los Angeles Chargers. While he didn’t record an interception in 2019 for the first time in his career, he did log 51 tackles and returned a punt for a touchdown to make it three straight years with a score.

Entering 2020, King is again expected to be the Chargers’ primary slot corner playing behind Chris Harris and Casey Hayward. But King’s versatility could be put to the rest as LA lost starting safety Derwin James for the season during training camp. It remains possible King could earn a look in the back end of the Chargers D.

Christian Kirksey, LB
Green Bay Packers

Former Iowa standout Christian Kirksey is entering year 7 in the NFL and his first season not with the Cleveland Browns. The former captain of the Browns appeared in just two games for Cleveland a season ago and ended the year on IR with a hamstring issue. He was waived after the season and Green Bay was quick to swoop in, signing Kirksey to a two year, $16M deal.

Now, Kirksey is looking to make good on Green Bay’s investment and is listed as a starting inside linebacker heading into week 1.

Casey Kreiter, LS
New York Giants

Long snapper Casey Kreiter is entering his fifth season in the NFL. After four years in Denver, the former Bronco is now the starter for the New York Giants. Kreiter was a Pro Bowler in 2019.

Cedrick Lattimore, DT
Seattle Seahawks

Defensive tackle Cedric Lattimore went undrafted in the 2020 NFL Draft, but caught on in Seattle as an undrafted free agent. Unfortunately, Lattimore was released by the Seahawks over the weekend as the team made cuts to get their final 53-man roster. We’ll see if Lattimore lands on a practice squad in the coming days.

Greg Mabin, CB
Cincinnati Bengals

Like Lattimore, cornerback Greg Mabin got the bad news over the weekend as he was released by the Cincinnati Bengals. Mabin finished last season as the Bengals’ #3 corner after being promoted from the practice squad earlier in the year. After going undrafted in 2017, Mabin has spent time in San Francisco, Buffalo and Cincinnati over the last four seasons. Look for him to get another shot during 2020.

Anthony Nelson, LB
Tampa Bay Buccanneers

Former defensive end Anthony Nelson is entering year two with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The former fourth round pick played in 9 games for the Bucs a season ago, totaling 8 tackles and a forced fumble while earning one start. Entering 2020, Nelson is listed as the backup weakside linebacker behind veteran Jason Peirre-Paul.

Ben Niemann, LB
Kansas City Chiefs

Linebacker Ben Niemann is entering his third season with the Kansas City Chiefs after going undrafted in 2018. Niemann, who logged 56 tackles in 16 appearances a season ago, has now won a Super Bowl in half his seasons in the NFL. Entering 2020, Niemann is making waves in training camp.

That has earned him some respect among teammates, as well as coaches.

Heading into week 1, Niemann is listed as the second string middle linebacker for the Chiefs behind... fellow Hawkeye Anthony Hitchens.

Michal Ojemudia, CB
Denver Broncos

After being taken in the third round of this year’s NFL Draft, cornerback Michael Ojemudia is looking to earn a spot in Denver. His early efforts in camp generated some buzz that he may play his way into a starting role.

As we head into week 1, OJ is listed as the #2 right corner behind 6th year pro Bryce Callahan.

Geno Stone, S
Baltimore Ravens

Seventh round pick Geno Stone is entering his rookie season with the Baltimore Ravens. On draft day, the initial reaction was this could be a good fit for Stone. Those impressions are proving correct early on as Stone made the final 53-man roster for Baltimore’s opening week.

Stone is currently listed as the backup free safety behind second year starter DeShon Elliott.

Kristian Welch, LB
Baltimore Ravens

Linebacker Kristian Welch rounds things out for the Hawkeyes in the NFL. Unfortunately for the undrafted free agent, Welch was released by the Baltimore Ravens in the final cut to make the 53-man roster. We’ll monitor the Wisconsin native to see if he lands on a practice squad in the coming days as he reportedly had a decent shot to make the roster cut as an inside linebacker as of a few days ago.

And that’s it for Iowa’s defenders in the NFL heading into week one. As a reminder, you can see the rundown of offensive players here. Since publication, QB Nate Stanley, TE Nate Weiting and G Ross Reynolds have been released by their respective teams, though Stanley has already be signed to the Vikings practice squad.

Stay tuned each Tuesday as we dive into the performances from around the leage. With 29 former Hawkeyes on active rosters, there will be plenty to discuss.