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Next-Level Fits For Penn State’s Two Top NFL Prospects

Penn State’s group of prospective NFL draftees is arguably one of the best in recent memory. There’s talent all across the board at a number of premier positions — and the class is not only markedly skilled, but bears a great deal of significance to the program. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg was integral in keeping the celebrated Class of 2013 together and is ingrained in Penn State lore as the player that helped salvage a program on the brink of collapse. On the other hand, there’s defensive end Carl Nassib — the little-known reserve who captivated the country as he broke school records in his final season.

Not only do these two players stand above the rest due to their impact on the program, but because of the sheer intrigue surrounding their fit at the NFL level. Test results, intangibles, and collegiate production are all factors that shape a prospect’s draft profile, but no front office executive can be certain about a prospect until he suits up on Sundays — a notion that makes the draft process akin to Russian Roulette more than anything.

But with the help of film study, we can more accurately predict where a prospect might fit at the next level. We asked homepage editor and NFL writer Chris Trapasso (@ChrisTrapasso) to help us study Hackenberg and Nassib to give fans a better idea of where they might land in the pros.

Christian Hackenberg | QB | 2nd-5th Rd. Grade

Hackenberg Looks to Throw Again Stock Northwestern

In a relatively top-heavy quarterback draft class, Hackenberg is one of the more intriguing prospects solely because his collegiate production was something of a wildcard week-to-week. We all know the story; Hackenberg thrived under Bill O’Brien as a true freshman throwing for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He was confident as a passer and displayed veteran poise in the pocket.

But with James Franklin at the helm, he struggled mightily at times playing behind a patchwork offensive line that left him for dead more often than not. But now and then, he’d take over portions of games and deliver NFL-caliber throws — all performed with the same confidence and poise he routinely displayed in 2013.

Here’s what Chris said regarding Hackenberg’s NFL projection and scheme fit:

To start, with Hackenberg, I agree with on you on the situation that’d suit him best. He needs to go to a team that has an established quarterback in place so he can learn the nuances of the position at the NFL level and have time to acclimate himself to the speed of the pro game and the complexities of coverages. Think of the environment former UCLA standout Brett Hundley is in. He was a very talented yet somewhat inconsistent prospect in last year’s draft. He got picked by the Green Bay Packers and will sit behind Aaron Rodgers. 
Hackenberg has all the raw talent any coach could ever ask for in a quarterback. His arm was easily one of the best in the country this year — he can make a plethora of throws even top-level quarterback prospects cannot. As a true freshman, with a relatively strong offensive line and Allen Robinson at receiver, Hackenberg was mainly comfortable in the pocket and produced at a high level, especially for an 18-year-old. 
I think the last two years, he lost that comfort in the pocket and the star wide receiver, very similar to what we saw from Rodgers this year in the pros. Both signal-callers appeared to be more worried about the pass rush getting to them than reading their receivers’ route trees and pulling the trigger. 
If he’s pressured often in the NFL, I think the ball placement and decision-making issues that we saw at Penn State will arise again. If he’s in a strong offensive atmosphere, I think he can be a lot like Matthew Stafford. They’re very comparable in terms of their quarterbacking talent and style of play. 
Chris brings up a great point regarding Hackenberg’s arm; there’s no doubt that it’s a live one, and despite lackadaisical footwork and occasional decision-making errors, he put that golden arm on display game after game.

In this example from 2013 against Wisconsin, Hackenberg puts his ball on a dime just over the outstretched arms of the defender. To be that precise, a quarterback can’t simply loaf a throw near the sideline — that’s almost a sure bet to be intercepted. A throw of that nature requires both velocity and confidence, and Hackenberg provides both.

On this throw against Maryland in 2015, Hackenberg provides much of the same. Against a loaded box, he exploits single coverage with a pinpoint-accurate bomb in quick fashion — he releases the ball just before pressure is able to reach him, but shows no signs of hesitancy.

If his consistency hadn’t fluctuated so drastically over the course of his career, the conversation would be much different. Still, throws like these prove that he certainly possesses an NFL-worthy skill set.

Here’s what Chris thought regarding potential landing spots for Hackenberg:

For exact “fits,” being drafted by the Ravens, Steelers, Chargers, Cowboys, or Falcons would be ideal for him, and to alleviate “pressure” on him starting right away and simply guessing his value based on his body of work with the Nittany Lions, he seems like a Round 2 – Round 5 prospect.

Elaborating on Chris’ point, these landing spots would allow Hackenberg to sit behind entrenched NFL starters, giving him an opportunity to learn the tricks of the trade from elite-level talents. If Dallas opts to pass on drafting its quarterback of the future at No. 4, don’t be surprised if Jerry Jones waits until the later rounds to draft a groom-able prospect like Hackenberg with players like Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, and Paxton Lynch off the board.

Carl Nassib | DE | 3rd-5th Rd. Grade

carl nassib penn state football at temple

Carl Nassib is a bit harder to analyze given the uncertainty surrounding his draft stock. He was unquestionably the best defender in college football this season; his impact on games was palpable, and his statistics were off the charts. His 46 tackles, 19.5 TFL, 15.5 sacks, one interception, and six forced fumbles are impossible to ignore, but the lingering question is one of transferability — does his spectacular 2015 performance translate to the professional level?

Here’s what Chris had to say about Nassib:

On Nassib, unfortunately some teams will label him a “one-year wonder” and will be scared off because of that. On film, I saw an above-average athlete for the defensive end position with a good motor and some adequate block-shedding ability. He’s more of a linear athlete with a nice burst upfield than a quick-twitch, change-of-direction player.
In the NFL, like Hackenberg, Nassib would benefit by being drafted to a team that won’t ask him to be the No. 1 pass-rusher as a rookie. He could be more active with his hands and develop a counter move or two as a pass-rusher, and those things take time. His position coach will love his motor and the fact that he doesn’t necessarily need to come off the field on passing downs. Landing with a 4-3 team in need of a left defensive end would make the most sense for him. He’d be a logical fit with the Buccaneers, Dolphins, Eagles, Bengals, Raiders, Giants, or Falcons somewhere in the middle rounds of the draft. 
Again, Chris raises excellent points. Nobody is taking away from Nassib’s stellar play; it’s only fair to acknowledge that there are a few holes in his game that NFL offensive linemen would sniff out in a heartbeat.

This play against Temple accurately showcases the pros and cons of Nassib’s skill set. On a number of his 15.5 sacks, Nassib relied on brute strength and athleticism to help him reach the quarterback. The story remains the same here. Temple’s offensive line failed to properly pick up blitzes from Brandon Bell and Gary Wooten, allowing Nassib to blow past the overwhelmed offensive lineman and hunt down quarterback P.J. Walker with rare straight-line speed for an athlete his size. While he’ll be able to take advantage of that speed in the pros, he certainly can’t use it as a crutch. If he’s to further develop as a pass-rusher, he needs that second move — or at the very least, engage linemen with his hands as Chris alluded to.

Nassib is athletic enough to develop a pass-rushing repertoire, and although his name will be called long after players like Joey Bosa and Shawn Oakman are off the board, the situations Chris provided would be highly beneficial for the young pass-rusher. The Oakland Raiders provide Nassib the best opportunity to broaden his horizon mainly because he’d play a situational role, and would learn from players like Khalil Mack and Justin Tuck — in my mind, the defensive equivalent of Aaron Rodgers sitting behind Favre.


Both players are unique in their own right, and have a great chance at forging prosperous NFL careers. The program salutes both young men for their contributions and sacrifice, and wherever they end up, they’ll have the support of Penn State faithful across the country.

Again, thanks to Chris Trapasso for the film study and commentary.

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About the Author

David Abruzzese

David is a senior from Rochester, NY, nestled right in beautiful Western New York. He is majoring in Broadcast Journalism, and as an avid sports fan, he passionately supports the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres. He is the first Penn Stater from his family, and couldn’t be prouder to represent Penn State University. In his free time, he likes to alpine ski, and play golf. You can follow him on Twitter @abruz11, and can contact him via email at [email protected]


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