As Daviyon Nixon’s wait continued Saturday before ultimately being selected in the NFL draft, the Minnesota Vikings saw multiple ways that Iowa State’s Kene Nwangwu and Iowa’s Ihmir Smith-Marsette could help their teams.
The possibility to help the Vikings’ return game led Minnesota to select the Cyclones running back in the fourth round and take the Hawkeyes receiver one round later.
Nixon, the Big Ten defensive player of the year who at one point was regarded as a potential first-round selection, also was taken in the fifth round as NFL teams wrapped up three days of selections with the final four rounds of the 2021 draft.
"I’m not sure why things went the way they did," said Nixon, selected by Carolina. "There are so many things that go into it. I’m just happy with where I’m at right now."
Northern Iowa defensive end Elerson Smith, an all-Missouri Valley Football Conference choice in 2019, became the second Panther taken in this year’s draft when the New York Giants selected him with the 11th pick in the fourth round.
The 6-foot-6, 252-pound Minneapolis native ranked among FCS leaders with five forced fumbles, 21.5 tackles for a loss and 14 sacks in 2019 before opting out of UNI’s delayed 2020 season.
Giving the Panthers two players chosen in the same draft for the first time since 2008, Smith was taken with the 116th pick of the draft, three positions ahead of when the Vikings took Nwangwu.
The back-up to All-American Breece Hall gained 339 yards while averaging 5.6 yards per carry in addition to setting an ISU record with a kick return average of 26.8 yards.
It was his work on returns that caught the eye of the Vikings, general manager Rick Spielman said in a post-draft interview with the team’s website.
"He was never the lead dog, always running behind some good running backs at Iowa State, but when he got his opportunity you could see his speed, his burst," Spielman said. "His ability to accelerate through the hole and his speed really showed up in his kickoff returns."
Minnesota then chose Smith-Marsette with the 13th pick of the fifth round, the highest draft position for a Hawkeye receiver since Tim Dwight was taken by the Falcons in the fourth round of the 1998 draft.
Smith-Marsette, a 6-1, 175-pound Newark, N.J., native, helped himself by averaging 28.7 yards on kickoffs, the second-best average in Big Ten history.
Spielman said the Vikings watched a lot of 2019 tape of Smith-Marsette working with quarterback Nate Stanley, who Minnesota took in the seventh round of the 2020 draft.
"You could see his athleticism and speed not only as he returned kicks and punts but also as a receiver," Spielman said. "We like his big-play experience and big-play ability."
Nixon’s wait ended one pick after Minnesota took Smith-Marsette, chosen by the Panthers with the 14th pick of the fifth round and the 158th overall pick in the draft class.
After watching the first night of the draft in Iowa City with his parents, he spent Friday and Saturday in his hometown of Kenosha, Wis., watching with family and friends.
The call from Carolina caught him by surprise.
"It came as a total shock," Nixon said in a video conference with Panthers beat reporters. "I didn’t know when I was going or who would pick me. It was a real shock."
The 6-3, 313-pound Nixon led the Big Ten with 13 tackles for a loss and ranked fourth in the conference with 5.5 sacks among his 45 tackles last fall during his only full season as an Iowa starter.
"I feel like (Carolina) is getting the best defensive tackle in the draft," Nixon said. "I’ve been through trials and tribulations, but they’re getting a good leader who will do everything I need to do for my teammates and coaches, somebody who is determined and is ready to rock and roll."
With defensive end Chauncey Golston taken Friday in the third round by the Cowboys, Nixon became the third of four Hawkeyes selected in this year’s draft.
Linebacker Nick Niemann gave Iowa at least four NFL draft picks for the fourth time in five years, selected by the Chargers with the first pick of the sixth round.
The ninth Iowa linebacker in the Kirk Ferentz era to be drafted, the 6-4, 233-pound Sycamore, Ill., native earned third-team All-Big Ten honors after leading the Hawkeyes with 77 tackles last season.
Illinois finished with multiple draft selections for the first time since 2015 when cornerback Nate Hobbs was taken by the Las Vegas Raiders with the 23rd pick in the fifth round.
Hobbs’ selection followed the Steelers’ selection of offensive lineman Kendrick Green in the third round on Friday.
The 6-0, 195-pound Louisville, Ky., native finished with 31 tackles, two tackles for a loss and one interception in five games last season. He missed three additional games because of injury.
Two Quad-City area natives were among players accepting free-agent deals once the draft ended.
Iowa defensive tackle Jack Heflin, a former Erie-Prophetstown prep from Prophetstown, Ill., signed as a free agent with the Green Bay Packers while Illinois State offensive lineman Drew Himmelman, a former Geneseo prep, is a free agent signing of the Denver Broncos.
Other Hawkeyes to sign included offensive tackle Alaric Jackson with the Rams, wide receiver Brandon Smith with the Cowboys, tight end Shaun Beyer with the Broncos and guard Cole Banwart with the Titans.
Iowa State announced the signing of four players to free-agent opportunities: tight end Dylan Soehner with the Saints, defensive lineman JaQuan Bailey with the Eagles, defensive back Lawrence White with the Buccaneers and wide receiver Landen Akers with the Rams.
Illinois wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe signed with the Jaguars and former Northern Iowa tight end Briley Moore, who played last season for Kansas State, signed with the Titans.