Hawks in the NFL: Sophomore surge

BY CHARLIE GREEN | JUNE 23, 2015 5:00 AM

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Similarly to 2015, three Hawkeyes heard their names called in the 2014 NFL draft. What’s surprising is that not a single one of them was a defensive or interior offensive lineman — although one of them might as well be.

Two linebackers, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens, saw significant playing time in 2014 after productive careers at Iowa.

The highest of the three picked in that draft was C.J. Fiedorowicz (pick 1, round 3), who failed to replicate the impact of his former teammates during his rookie season.

Here’s a look at the second-year Hawkeyes in the NFL:

C.J. Fiedorowicz (TE, Houston Texans)

Last season saw Fiedorowicz nab one more reception (4) than Houston’s all-everything defensive end J.J. Watt (3), despite the former Hawkeye’s logging 471 offensive snaps.

Tack on another 96 snaps on special teams, and at least the tight end found his way on to field often for a rookie.

From his days running the offense of the New England Patriots (mostly recently in 2011), it’s clear that head coach Bill O’Brien loves himself some tight ends — it’s not uncommon to see the Texans line up in two-tight end formations.

When the team selected the 6-6, 265-pounder, his role figured to be primarily as a blocker.

Fiedorowicz hauled in just 30 passes as a senior in 2013, but his exceptional size made him one of the top prospects at tight end.

So it’s not alarming that he only hauled in 4 catches for 28 yards as a rookie — especially considering he was only targeted seven times.

Part of the problem is Houston’s lack of a franchise quarterback. The team ranked 24th in the league in passing yards per game last season at 209.5. Although Ryan Fitzpatrick played decently in 2014, he’s anything but a game-changer at the position.

The offense still runs through running back Arian Foster, who ran for 1,246 yards on 260 caries and added 38 receptions.

Fiedorowicz’ big frame could make him a nice option in the red zone, but he needs to develop his skills as a receiver first, and his second training camp provides a solid opportunity to add a new element to his game.

But going into this season, it looks like his primary role will be opening holes for Foster and backup halfback Alfred Blue.

Just to show how unorthodox the Texans’ offense was last year, Watt had 3 touchdown receptions; Fiedorowicz had 1 — a pass thrown on a trick play by Foster in Week 16.

That sums up the Texans’ offense; don’t expect the second-year tight end from Iowa to put up big numbers as a receiver anytime soon.

Anthony Hitchens (LB, Dallas Cowboys)

The most valuable asset Hitchens gained from his rookie year was versatility — seeing time at all three linebacker spots.

And he also proved that when given the opportunity to start, he could be productive. Against St. Louis on Sept. 21, he logged 13 tackles and added another 12 on Nov. 27 against Philadelphia. He also had an interception in Week 16 against the Colts.

Hitchens is projected to start at weakside linebacker for the Cowboys heading into training camp, alongside a returning-from-injury Sean Lee and suspended Rolando McClain.

While Hitchens proved to be an effective run defender last year, he had his struggles in the passing game.

If he doesn’t improve in that area before the start of the season, expect the Cowboys to leave the more athletic Lee and McClain in games during passing situations, likely in a nickel package to handle tight ends and running backs out of the backfield.

Christian Kirksey (LB, Cleveland Browns)

Kirksey played in 684 defensive snaps and 256 snaps on special teams for the Browns in 2014 — splitting time with veteran Craig Robertson at left-side linebacker and using his 4.50 speed to his benefit as a pass defender.

In Cleveland’s 3-4 defensive scheme, two of its four linebackers are pass rushers, usually beginning plays on the line of scrimmage. That means that there’s more competition for the two inside-backer spots, where players begin every play in a two-point stance a few yards behind the line.

Robertson is listed as the starter on the depth chart at present, but because Kirksey is younger and therefore theoretically has more room to grow, he might take even more playing time from Robertson this season.

Both had similar statistics last season, but the NFL is a young man’s game. For this reason, Pro Football Focus rated Kirksey at “average” and Robertson at “below average.”

The depth chart may read Robertson as the starter, but in reality, it’s likely Kirksey’s job to lose.

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