Iowa Football

If NFL careers of Tristan Wirfs, A.J. Epenesa become stocks, call your broker

Neither Hawkeye drafted as high as expected, but both go to good spots

Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa and offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs warm up on the field before their first college game
Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa and offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs warm up on the field before their first college game, at Kinnick Stadium on Sept. 2, 2017. (The Gazette)

Yes, three offensive tackles had been taken before Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs went 13th in the NFL Draft Thursday.

Years will pass before it’s ever clear who was the best pick of the quartet, Andrew Thomas, Jedrick Wills, Mekhi Becton or Wirfs. But here’s what we know now:

By going to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Wirfs will be higher-profile than the others next season even though Thomas and Becton will play for New York teams. Wills is a Cleveland Brown.

When the next NFL season begins, the team with the most scrutiny will be the Bucs. Not the self-described America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys. Not the defending Super Bowl-champion Kansas City Chiefs. Not Brady’s dynasty of the last 20 years, the New England Patriots.

No, it’s the Buccaneers. It’s Brady in his new Tampa digs with tight end Rob Gronkowski, and two 1,000-yard receivers of last season in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. All you have to do, Tristan, is step in as a rookie and keep NFL defenders out of Brady’s personal space.

Pro football fans won’t be able to miss Wirfs when he plays, because Tampa Bay will be omnipresent on TV and Wirfs will be trying to throw his ample weight around while positioned in front of Brady.

Marshal Yanda, Bryan Bulaga and Brandon Scherff are former Hawkeye offensive linemen who have had or are having distinguished careers. Yanda and Bulaga played for Super Bowl winners. Yanda could one day be a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee.

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None, though, were known so well in their careers as Wirfs could be in his first season. When you ride with Brady and Gronk, you don’t ride alone. The nation is watching.

Wirfs dropped a little in the draft according to almost all NFL mock drafts. He was as high as fourth in some, in the top 10 of most. Hawkeye defensive end A.J. Epenesa, however, dropped a bunch. He was seen as a late first-round or early second-round selection. He went 54th, late in the second round, to the Buffalo Bills, behind several edge rushers.

Why? Because of the NFL Combine, where unlike Wirfs, Epenesa’s times overwhelmed no one? Your guess is as good as mine.

NFL scouts are football-brilliant. Until they find metrics to determine heart and soul, though, their work will never be foolproof. So quite often, as you’d expect over 200-plus draft picks per year, they don’t get things right. See cornerback Desmond King, Iowa, pick No. 151 in the 2017 draft.

Here in Iowa, we saw King play week after week and assumed he was a player who would make a pro team happy. A lot of NFL people saw something differently. In that case, we were right. Will that be the case with Epenesa?

We who saw him game after game say yes. He had just 3.5 sacks over the first eight games in 2019 because he was double-teamed and had to adjust to that. But adjust, Epenesa did. He had eight sacks over Iowa’s final five games, and overwhelmed Minnesota, Nebraska and USC in that stretch.

If you look, you’ll find some early 2021 mock NFL drafts around the World Wide Web in days to come. Last April, Epenesa was in everybody’s top 15, and was as high as third in one. That was without having made a single college start.

Wirfs, on the other hand, wasn’t featured in most of those. That changed before the year was over.

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Nothing is guaranteed. Three years ago, who saw San Francisco tight end George Kittle of Iowa becoming what he’s become? On the other hand, Washington Redskins offensive lineman Brandon Scherff has lived up to his high expectations since Washington took him fifth in 2015.

Epenesa is headed to one of the NFL’s least-glamorous places in Buffalo. There won’t be any Tampa-type spotlight unless the Bills win big. But they are a good and improving team, perhaps the favorite to win the AFC East next season, which would be the first time since 1995. A rising tide lifts all boats. Meaning, it’s better to be headed to a club on the way up.

It doesn’t mean as much now as it would have several weeks ago, but I’d rather invest in Epenesa’s future than anything on Wall Street. Wirfs’, too.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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