Potential Landing Spots For Penn State’s NFL Hopefuls
The 2014 college football season has come to an end. A handful of Penn State football players will now begin training for the NFL Scouting Combine with the hopes of impressing scouts in order to hear their name called on draft day or sign with a team shortly after.
This year’s crop of draft-eligible players all have a chance to wind up on NFL rosters come August, and depending on where they land, make an impact on the field. Let’s take a look at where this year’s group could end up at the next level.
DE Deion Barnes
Barnes, who opted to forgo his final season of eligibility and enter the 2015 NFL Draft, possesses the skills and traits necessary to succeed in the NFL. The main concern teams will have with Barnes will be his ability to consistently produce and pose a threat as a pass rusher.
His Penn State career was one of highs and lows. In 2012, he earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors after a monster rookie season that saw him lead the Big Ten in sacks with six, while recording 26 tackles, 10 for a loss, and three forced fumbles. After such a remarkable season, expectations began to mount and the spotlight was fixed on Barnes. His follow-up act in 2013 was a huge letdown. His production tailed off significantly with teams beginning to plan around him, and although he upped his tackle total by two, he recorded only two sacks.
In 2014, Barnes returned back to his freshman form, terrorizing quarterbacks off the edge and setting the tempo for one of the nation’s top-ranked defenses. He nearly doubled his number of tackles, and matched the six sacks he posted in 2012. He and Donovan Smith will be two of three juniors playing at the Senior Bowl.
Many hoped to see Barnes stay in Happy Valley for one more season to sharpen his skills under the tutelage of defensive line coach Sean Spencer and coordinator Bob Shoop, but there is no doubt that he will entice some teams in the later rounds of the draft. Barnes projects as a 4-3 end at the next level, and could wind up hearing his name called in rounds five though seven, depending on his performance in the combine and Penn State’s Pro Day.
OT Donovan Smith
Donovan Smith made the surprising decision to jump to the NFL early with one year of eligibility remaining, but at 6-foot-5 and 335 pounds, some team will take a flier on him. Smith has the body of an NFL-caliber offensive tackle, and has constantly faced top-level talent during his Penn State career. After anchoring Matt McGloin’s blindside in his first season, earning a spot on ESPN.com’s Big Ten All-Freshman team in the process, he helped protect then-freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg during his record rookie season. Although 2014 was a disappointing one for Penn State up front, Smith remained the unit’s one constant, holding his own in a division loaded with elite pass-rushers.
He finished his career with 31 starts under his belt, good for second-highest on the team during that span. Smith enters a draft loaded with talented offensive line prospects, a handful of whom will hear their names called in the first two rounds. If Smith were to stay at Penn State for his redshirt senior year, I have no doubt he’d be drafted significantly higher than he would this season.
That said, Smith will most likely be selected in the final rounds of the draft, barring any major occurrences between now and the draft. A player like Smith adds great depth, and with proper coaching could definitely develop into a serviceable NFL left tackle. A tackle-needy team like Tampa Bay or Chicago could select him in the fifth or sixth rounds.
TE Jesse James
James’ decision to enter the draft was another surprise, seeing as CBS Sports had him listed as its best tight end prospect for 2016. That said, James will most likely be drafted the highest out of the trio of early-entrants from Penn State, due to the thinness of this year’s tight end class. James is an intriguing prospect due to his ridiculous size and catching ability. At 6-foot-7 and 254 pounds, he is a mismatch nightmare for opposing defensive backs, and poses a considerable threat in the red zone.
His stats don’t necessarily jump off the page, however — James’ never totaled more than 396 yards in a season — but do reflect how talented he is in enemy territory. The majority of James’ 11 career touchdown catches came in red zone situations and on jump balls, where he was nearly impossible to guard. James’ primary weakness is blocking, meaning the team that drafts him will have to use him mainly as a pass-catcher, although with his size and strength, it’s not far-fetched to think that he could develop into an average blocker.
James has all of the physical tools needed to succeed in the NFL, where he could potentially grow into a Joseph Fauria/Scott Chandler type of mold. I could see a team going as high as the third round for James, but he most likely lands in the fourth round.
S Adrian Amos
Adrian Amos, another Senior Bowl invitee, was the most versatile member of Penn State’s secondary, with starting experience at both cornerback and safety. In the pros, Amos projects as a free safety, mainly due to his exceptional coverage skills. Amos also provides exceptional support against the run, and is not afraid to square up and lay a big hit. Amos has a knack for the ball, and at 6-foot-1 and 209 pounds fits the mold of an NFL safety. With 4.45 speed to boot, Amos could be a late round steal for a team in need of a boost in the secondary.
LB Mike Hull
After a remarkable senior campaign, Mike Hull enters the NFL Draft riding a wave of momentum. Hull’s relentless motor will attract linebacker-needy teams, as will his ability against the run. Hull was the heart and soul of Penn State’s top-ranked defense, and those leadership intangibles will translate to the next level. Hull is underrated in coverage, and can be effective when dropping back into zone protection. While he may not be the fastest player on the field, he makes up for it with his effort and intensity. The main downside physically for Hull is his size. At 6-foot, he would be classified as undersized, which may cause him to slide into the later rounds, similar to former Wisconsin Badger and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Borland, who slipped to the 49ers in the third round of last year’s draft.
Hull projects best as an inside linebacker, but is versatile enough to adjust to multiple defensive schemes and slide to the outside, which he did briefly in 2014 when Brandon Bell was sidelined with an injury. I see Hull as a fifth to sixth round pick, but could blossom into a star if given the opportunity, like other Penn State linebackers have in the NFL.
OG Miles Dieffenbach
If it weren’t for his ACL injury in the preseason, Miles Dieffenbach could be drafted as high as the fourth round. Now, it seems more likely that he’d be a later round selection, possibly sixth or seventh. Dieffenbach is a fantastic run blocker, possessing tremendous strength to drive opposing tackles and open up running lanes. He is underrated when pulling, displaying above-average agility when progressing to the second level. His quickness allows him to kick out linebackers, a trait coveted by several teams.
Dieffenbach could fill a role similar to John Urschel’s with the Baltimore Ravens, providing depth as a late round pick, but can come in and perform admirably. Dieffenbach may be a reserve player to begin his NFL career, but could definitely develop into a starter if placed in the right system.
K Sam Ficken
Fan favorite Sam Ficken rebounded from a disastrous end to his 2013 season to post an 82.8% field goal percentage in 2014. Ficken displayed both a booming leg and deadeye accuracy during the 2014 season, but most importantly, he didn’t disappoint when the spotlight was on. He went 4-4 against UCF in Ireland, sent the Pinstripe Bowl to overtime with a 45-yarder, and hit the game winner that gave Penn State its first bowl win since the sanctions were levied, Ficken was the definition of clutch.
Also worth noting: four of Ficken’s five missed field goals were blocked, meaning in essence he was only responsible for one miss. Ficken might not get drafted, but should be signed shortly after the conclusion of the draft. If Ficken’s 2014 season was any indication, he may very well have a future kicking in the NFL. And it would appear ESPN agrees, ranking Ficken as the number one kicking prospect heading into the draft.
DE/OLB C.J. Olaniyan
Despite playing defensive end during his Penn State career, Olaniyan projects as an outside linebacker at the next level. At 6-3, 252 pounds, Olaniyan fits the 3-4 edge rusher mold perfectly, given his combination of speed and strength. The primary concern for Olaniyan is that he lacks the coverage skillset of a typical NFL outside linebacker. Also, the transition to the outside would be a dramatic change for a player who has played defensive end in a 4-3 system. Olaniyan might warrant a seventh round draft grade, but most likely falls out of the draft. If his coverage skills improve, Olaniyan could thrive as a situational edge rusher in a reserve role.