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For a Power-5 school that has resided in football conferences that have produced some big-time teams throughout the years, Iowa State has sent shockingly few big-name players to the NFL.
Quick without looking: Who is the best NFL player to ever play at the school?
Even looking might not give you an easy answer. Could it be … Kelechi Osemele?! Maybe it’s Matt Blair, a very underrated linebacker for the Vikings who made six straight Pro Bowls in the late 70s and early 80s.
Other candidates include Oilers and Titans safety Marcus Robertson, who made All Pro one season; former Dolphins guard Keith Sims; former Bengals guard Bruce Reimers; plus a handful of other nice players scattered throughout the league’s history. QBs David Archer, Sage Rosenfels and Seneca Wallace managed to stick around in the league for a few years and make their brief imprints. But we’re not exactly talking about Alabama here in terms of being an NFL talent factory.
This is by no means a shot at Iowa State’s program. And I’ve been to Ames, Iowa — nice folks up there. Good sports fans, too. But, you know, it’s pretty much a basketball school.
The football program has produced exactly one (1!!!) NFL first-round pick, and it was a lifetime ago: the little-remembered George Amundson, who went 14th overall to the Houston Oilers in 1973. His career was cut short to 23 games with the Oilers in 1973 and 1974 and six more with the Eagles in 1975. Amundsen had a three-TD game to kick off the 1974 season against the Chargers before being dusted off to the very corners of league history.
Osemele, a guard for the Raiders, is probably the Cyclones’ best current player in the league, edging out Saints LB A.J. Klein, who is a solid performer at what he does. But that soon could change for the school soon with the 2019 NFL draft in sight.
Two Iowa State prospects could be drafted in the same range that Osemele did back in 2012, when he was the 60th overall pick, and perhaps higher. RB David Montgomery and WR Hakeem Butler are well-liked in some scouting circles and even have outside shots at being the school’s highest-drafted player in many years.
Since Amundsen, the Cyclones have produced exactly two top-50 selections in the past 45 years: Sims, who went 39th overall in 1990, and NT Mike Stensrud, who was the 31st pick in 1979 (back when the league had only 28 teams).
It’s hard to say which prospect — Butler or Montgomery — could end up going higher.
On the one hand, the 6-foot-6 Butler has enticing upside as a red-zone monster and we’re talking about a player who averaged 22.0 yards per catch this past season in a passing game that cycled through three QBs and averaged 8.7 yards per attempt. They just don’t build receivers like Butler every day, and though he’s not a fit for every coach or system, there’s sure to be one team that’s enthralled with the raw talent he possesses.
But on the other hand, Montgomery might be the more ready-made prospect. He had three very productive seasons for the Cyclones, the past two as the featured back. Montgomery wasn’t a home-run hitter as a runner and isn’t nearly the physical or athletic specimen as his teammate. But he showed good enough all-around skills to perhaps be a better pro than Montgomery was as a college player if he lands in the right NFL system.
There are other factors. Wide receivers might have a better shot of being drafted higher, all things being equal, but this is a class where Butler easily could slip with a fair amount of depth, especially in that Day 2 range. Montgomery might be closer to the top of the RB totem pole than Butler is among the receivers, but how high a pick will a team be willing to spend for a back whose third-down ability might be somewhat limited?
Neither Butler nor Montgomery is a perfectly clean evaluation; both come with limitations. But one thing is pretty clear: Both are getting drafted this year barring some unforeseen circumstances, which would up the number of prospects drafted from the school since 2014 from one (Klein, Round 5 in 2014) to three.
There’s also one other crazy element to this Iowa State draft history piece. It might not take much for either player to very quickly become the best NFL players in school history at their respective positions.
The three leading NFL rushers from Iowa State are Tony Baker (2,087 yards, 15 TDs in 86 career games); Mike Strachan (1,902 yards, 14 TDs in 62 games); and Tom Watkins (1,791 yards, 10 TDs in 75 games). Heard of any of them? Baker played for four teams — mainly the Saints — in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Strachan was a backup on the Saints in the late ’70s. Watkins played for the Lions in the mid-to-late ’60s.
You have to go even farther back to find an Iowa State receiver to make any notable dent in the pros. Their leading NFL wide receivers are Jim Doran (3,667 yards, 24 TDs in 115 games); Ike Harris (3,305 yards, 16 TDs in 88 games); and Hal Crisler (2,042 yards, 22 TDs in 53 games). Keith Krepfle would have cracked that list, but he was considered a tight end in the 1970s and early ’80s. Doran’s career ended in 1961, Harris (who was teammates Strachan) finished up in 1981 and Crisler — a two-way player back in the day — started his career after World War II and finished up right as the Korean War started.
Things are changing. Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell is building a really strong program there, with NFL teams doing plenty of homework on him as a future head-coaching candidate in the pros, even though he recently signed a contract extension through 2024.
But now the league has a new reason to focus on the program: They have more NFL-caliber talent. Finally.