Defensive linemen headline Penn State's 2016 draft class
Bill O’Brien’s departure left behind a rebuilding job for the Penn State football program. Despite a coaching change, the team had seemingly found their starting quarterback the previous season in freshman QB Christian Hackenberg. The departure of one of college football’s best offensive minds had a profound effect on the team, however. Hackenberg failed to progress from his freshman season and, coupled with one of the worst offensive lines in college ball, the team struggled to a seven-win season.
A bright spot for the Nittany Lions was a defensive line which generated consistent pressure, resulting in three graduates likely to be drafted come April. Let’s take a look at their top prospects:
Carl Nassib, DE, +35.6
Nassib required a lot of time to develop after walking on at Penn State. He couldn’t have done much more with his only full season of college football experience however, leading the nation in sacks with 16. Nassib added nine hits and 28 hurries from just 239 snaps leading all 4-3 defensive ends in pass rush productivity.
While he’s not the most explosive edge rusher, highlighted by an average combine, his hand placement is excellent and he showed a consistent ability to dip the shoulder off the edge. Nassib wins with effort as much as athleticism, but also has an impressive array of pass rush moves, including a wicked arm-over which he uses consistently to beat guards when he stunts inside. He could work on improving against the run, where Nassib finds himself frequently out of control. He missed four of 29 tackles defending the run this season; eight in total. Nassib may fall in the draft because of his limited athleticism but he could end up proving great value on Day 2.
Austin Johnson, DT, +45.8
Johnson’s combine was absolutely dreadful. He finished no higher than the 36th percentile in any of the athletic drills. I think it’s fair to suggest those athletic limitations place a ceiling on Johnson’s NFL projection, but he’s ideal as a two-down run defender in an odd or even front. Johnson finished with the third-highest grade against the run, behind only Jarran Reed and Jonathan Bullard. Johnson recorded 36 defensive stops, anchoring effectively against double teams in particular. Single blocking him is unwise. Johnson regularly stands up his opponent, driving the blocker into the backfield before shedding to make the tackle.
The way he generates vertical movement against the run suggests Johnson would be an ideal two-gapping defensive tackle. As a pass rusher the seven sacks are impressive, but he lacked consistency generating only two hits and 14 hurries. The lack of athleticism shows up in the pass rush department, where Johnson won with power more frequently than lateral quickness, but there were occasions when he was able to shake a blocker immediately off the snap. Considering the depth at defensive tackle in the draft, Johnson might be forced to wait longer than he should to hear his name called, but he can certainly contribute on an NFL team.
Anthony Zettel, DT, +28.3
Zettel makes an interesting projection because of his regression in 2015. He finished 2014 as our fifth overall defensive tackle, with a +43.8 grade. Zettel’s sack count fell from ten to just two, even if he added three hits and a further 27 hurries. He clearly has the talent but such a drop-off in performance will have alarm bells ringing with NFL franchises. Unlike his teammate, Zettel performed well in the athletic tests at the combine, which matches up with his quickness in the pass rushing department.
On the other hand, his stature results in some deficiencies against the run. Zettel weighed in at just 277 pounds with arms of just over 31 inches. The lack of length and power shows up frequently against double teams where Zettel either ends up going backwards or on his back. He was also single blocked with alarming regularity for an interior defensive lineman. Even when he was able to beat his blocker, Zettel failed to finish either overpersuing or missing the tackle. Zettel will likely be a pass rusher only until he can get in an NFL weight room.
Trevor Williams, CB, +8.8
Trevor Williams was part of an underwhelming Penn State secondary in 2015. He did nothing to distinguish himself as an NFL prospect. Williams showed a willingness to attack the line of scrimmage against the run, finishing with a +4.5 grade in that facet of play, but he failed to display the coverage skills necessary to succeed in the pro game. Williams wasn’t tested much in 2015 – he was targeted just 31 times – but gave up 18 catches for 184 yards, three touchdowns, a pick and one pass defense. Ultimately he gave up a QB rating of 94.0 against only average competition. After failing to receive a combine or All-Star game invite, Williams will have to blow up his pro day to get NFL consideration.
Christian Hackenberg, QB, -12.1
While we’re yet to finish the process of going back and looking at Hackenberg’s 2013 film, his weaknesses from his freshman year appear to have persisted. His main weakness is short accuracy. Hackenberg misses low and high consistently on regulation throws. On short passes beyond the line of scrimmage, his completion percentage was just 61 percent in 2015, as he completed just 99 of 162 passes. Hackenberg had particularly difficult time completing simple screens both to running backs and wide receivers. While he recorded a -9.5 grade on passes inside 20 yards, he recorded a positive grade on deep targets. An NFL coach, most likely his former mentor in Houston, may well believe his short accuracy is rectifiable. Perhaps he’s right, but then again bad habits die hard. Hackenberg’s projection is boosted by the pro-style offense he ran at PSU and his impressive pocket presence but the limitations suggest he’ll have a tough time making it in the NFL.