The 2020 NFL Draft has come and gone, kickstarting the process for all 32 teams to begin picking up all of the undrafted free agents that were not selected over the three days of the first ever virtual NFL Draft process.
For two former Cyclones, Steve Wirtel and Josh Knipfel, the process of making it on an NFL team didn't take the normal route they expected, but both are ready for the challenge ahead.
Wirtel and Knipfel were two of the five former Cyclones who were picked up by NFL teams after the draft ended late Saturday afternoon, starting their path to making the 53-man roster to their respective teams.
Ready for the opportunity
Being undrafted doesn't mean the end of one's football career, and Knipfel and Wirtel are embracing that mentality, viewing their position of being undrafted and then picked up after the draft as an opportunity that demands their best.
Wirtel and Knipfel understand starting on the bottom of the depth chart will have plenty of obstacles attached to it but are eager to start working with their position coaches and teammates over Zoom calls over the next couple weeks.
Knipfel mentioned that the Bengals said weekend Zoom calls will be held Friday through Sunday for two hours a day, breaking down as much information as possible to jumpstart the offseason program for their players.
“My whole mindset before the draft was just, I want a chance, so now I’m just gonna work hard," Knipfel said.
Knipfel said he will ask questions and keep his head down and work until his time comes to step into a role for the Bengals. But until that time comes, he will do his job and understand his role in the organization.
Growing up as a Carolina Panthers fan for most of his life, Knipfel said that allegiance took a big shift once he got closer to being draft-eligible.
“Especially this year, I was a 32-team fan," Knipfel said. "Whatever team gave me a chance was going to be my team all the way.”
Wirtel feels the same way, saying it didn't matter who took a chance on him because he would give them the same work ethic that brought him to the top of his position group in the 2020 draft class.
And now, with Wirtel in Detriot behind a veteran specialist in front of him on the depth chart, Wirtel views his position as an opportunity that he has to take advantage of.
"It’s a powerful opportunity," Wirtel said.
Standing out from the crowd
With Wirtel being the only Iowa State player invited to the NFL Combine, Knipfel and other former Cyclones had very few chances to meet with team representatives and scouts to talk about their interest at the NFL level.
Knipfel said about two weeks before the draft, the Bengals reached out and spoke with him about potential interest in his fit with their system. And then a week before the draft rolled around, the Bengals' offensive line coach Jim Turner called Knipfel and said that being an Iowa State product showed itself on his tape, and the Bengals were still interested.
Playing through the whistle and going the extra mile on blocks and downfield setups stood out to the Bengals, according to Knipfel, saying Head Coach Matt Campbell's coaching philosophy of giving it your all and fighting for every inch paid off in the minds of his NFL evaluators.
"I was lucky to have them give me a chance," Knipfel said.
And with his 39 career starts at right tackle for Iowa State, Knipfel's toughness and willingness to fight for Iowa State made the Bengals willing to pick him up after the draft.
Just like Knipfel, Wirtel stood out right from the start — and the Lions noticed.
Wirtel got to become familiar with the Lions at the Reese's Senior Bowl on January 25, saying that right away he became comfortable with them and their feelings about what he could bring to their team.
One month later, Wirtel was back meeting with the Lions at the NFL Combine.
Wirtel met with both the head and assistant special teams coordinators, and, once again, Wirtel's unique athleticism and toughness made him a priority for the Lions. Wirtel said that in discussions with the Lions, Wirtel was seen as a valuable talent that they wanted, but the Lions told Wirtel that their first priority in the draft would be to fill their top position needs and then, if Wirtel was still around, they would be very interested in picking him up.
Wirtel said the Lions saw someone who can not only snap consistently but can also block and bring athletic ability of getting up the field quicker than most specialists would, something Wirtel said is losing prominence in most specialists' skillsets.
Brayden Coombs, the Lions' special teams coordinator, reminds Wirtel of himself, a high-energy fan of football who loves to win and compete. The mesh of personalities between the two has already added to Wirtel's comfortability with the Lions as a fit for him going forward.
"He fell in love with my athleticism," Wirtel said. "He believed I was the best snapper in this class... Hopefully I’ll be a Lion for the rest of my career."