Penn State 2015 NFL Draft Preview
Ladies and gentlemen, the NFL Draft is finally upon us. Tonight, we learn the fates of Penn State’s draft hopefuls, led by offensive tackle Donovan Smith, who will be in attendance as the draft kicks off in Chicago. We’ve provided plenty of input on Penn State’s handful of NFL prospects, but now that it’s draft night, here is the final preview of the Nittany Lions hoping to shine on Sundays.
Offensive Tackle Donovan Smith
Donovan Smith has burst onto the scene lately, shooting up draft boards ever since a strong Senior Bowl performance and a solid combine. The majority of draft pundits have Smith slotted in the upper tiers of the second and third rounds, but rumors have swirled about Smith sliding into the back end of what’s expected to be a tackle-heavy late first. Notably, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers have been connected to Smith leading up to the draft.
Smith has all the physical traits general managers covet, with a massive 6-foot-5, 335-pound frame. He has the strength to compete with the best, and with proper coaching, could develop into a dominant left tackle at the next level. Personally, I think he is a lock to go no later than the second round, but don’t count him out of the first. The team that drafts Smith will be pleased with the result.
Tight End Jesse James
Jesse James is one of the more intriguing prospects in the draft, given his monstrous stature. The 6-foot-7, 261-pound specimen is one of the biggest prospects height-wise at his position, and poses a mismatch threat down in the red zone — something a tight end-needy team would love to have on its offense. His giant catch radius and serviceable straight-line speed should land him in the third round, most likely to the New Orleans Saints, who are attempting to reload offensively after dealing away star tight end Jimmy Graham. The fit would be ironic, given the similarities of both towering tight ends.
Linebacker Mike Hull
Some teams will be scared off by Mike Hull’s lack of size, but he’s not the only shorter linebacker in the draft – UCLA’s Eric Kendricks and Miami’s Denzel Perryman both measure in at six feet even. Hull’s tape outweighs his small height disadvantage, which has landed him as high as the third round in some mocks. Hull’s projected destination, of all places, is Houston – home of Bill O’Brien’s Texans. Hull and O’Brien had a fantastic relationship during their time at Penn State, and it’s believed that chemistry is the driving force behind Houston’s interest in Hull.
Hull has a non-stop motor, and thrives against the run. He’s a natural leader, and can develop into an important locker room presence as he continues throughout his career. Mike Hull and Houston seem to be a match made in heaven, where he’d get to also play in a loaded front seven.
Guard Miles Dieffenbach
Another intriguing prospect, Miles Dieffenbach, possesses the skill set of a third-rounder, but may fall to the lower end of the draft — around the sixth or seventh round range — due to concerns over an ACL tear last spring, along with issues with his technique. Dieffenbach will most likely land in that sixth round slot, recently being mock drafted to the Kansas City Chiefs, a team in need of some patchwork on its offensive line.
Dieffenbach does possess the sheer strength and athleticism to survive against NFL defensive tackles. He could use work in becoming more of a road-grading offensive tackle, but will be a serviceable reserve on a team lacking overall depth. Dieffenbach, if healthy, can play with the big boys. He showed it prior to his ACL tear and will continue to demonstrate the ability as he develops into an NFL offensive guard.
Defensive End Deion Barnes
There’s no denying Barnes’ knack for getting to the quarterback, but the consensus remains that Barnes should’ve stayed at Penn State another year rather than declare for the NFL Draft with a season of eligibility remaining. Barnes, who played defensive end throughout college, might be asked to learn a new position in making the switch to pass-rushing outside linebacker. There are plenty of teams looking for the services of a player whose mold Barnes fits in the later rounds of the draft — but likely no higher than the fifth round.
A team that stands out as a likely candidate to select Barnes is San Diego, given that the team needs an eventual replacement for the aging Dwight Freeney. Barnes is a great candidate, and would get to learn behind Freeney for at least a few seasons before stepping into the starting role. Barnes must develop a better presence in stopping the run, but could be an impactful pass-rusher in the correct system.
Safety Adrian Amos
Amos is widely considered one of the best safety prospects in the draft, and has generally been slotted as a fourth-round pick in recent mock drafts. He’s incredibly versatile, having played both cornerback and safety during his time at Penn State. He’s got a nose for the ball, and roams the secondary with authority against the pass. While a steady playmaker, Amos struggles with tackling fundamentally at times, as he often attempts to lay a crushing blow rather than go for the wrap-up — a downfall that may have pushed him down draft boards.
A 4.38 40-yard dash at Penn State’s pro day should have erased any physical concerns about Amos, and may have impressed his future employers. The Pittsburgh Steelers sent significantly more scouts to Penn State’s pro day than any other team, save for a few. This may have been to evaluate Amos as a consideration to help fill the void left by retired strong safety Troy Polamalu. I believe a fourth round grade is accurate for Amos, and that he would fit the Steelers’ new look defensive secondary perfectly.
Defensive End C.J Olaniyan
Olaniyan is an interesting prospect given he, just as Barnes, might be asked to make the transition to outside linebacker after playing defensive end throughout his collegiate career. Olaniyan is expected to last until around the fifth round, but could slide all the way to round seven depending on how the cards fall.
His pass rushing skill are good enough to earn him a spot on a roster, but could use some work on his inside game. Here, he may be at a disadvantage given his lighter weight than other traditional NFL defensive ends, but plays so aggressively that he’d be able to make the proper adjustments and develop into a serviceable reserve pass rusher. He could benefit from playing in a situational pass rushing role in a system like that of new Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, and would definitely be available as the draft winds to a close.
K Sam Ficken
Sam Ficken is listed as the fourth-best kicking prospect in the NFL Draft, but has more upside than any given the deadly accuracy and distance Ficken flashed in his final year at Penn State. Ficken will either be a seventh round selection, or fall undrafted, but the Atlanta Falcons could nab Ficken prior to the draft’s conclusion, given the uncertainty surrounding current kicker Matt Bryant. Bryant might leave the team in free agency, meaning it would be wise for the Falcons to ensure the kicker position is safe to some degree.
Ficken would benefit from playing his home games in a dome, and has the leg strength to be counted on at the NFL level. All Ficken needs is an opportunity, and Atlanta looks like a potential destination for the young kicker.
Running Back Bill Belton
Belton is more of a north-south runner than his smaller frame might suggest, but there is no doubt he could provide depth as a change-of-pace back on a team with multiple weapons at the running back position.
Running Back Zach Zwinak
Zwinak’s heartbreaking injury suffered against Ohio State also caused him to sit out Penn State’s pro day, seriously hurting his draft stock. Although he might not hear his name called, he’ll receive a call from a team searching for a downhill runner that could be utilized as a fullback after the draft concludes.
Of course, these are all the projections of one humble college student. There’s no telling how the draft will truly play out until it begins on Thursday at 8 p.m. on ESPN.