Examining Penn State Draftees’ NFL Landing Spots
Penn State saw five Nittany Lions selected during this past weekend’s NFL Draft. We already know which franchises invested in the futures of Austin Johnson, Christian Hackenberg, Carl Nassib, Anthony Zettel, and Jordan Lucas, but what kind of playing time situation will each of them enter in the coming weeks?
Austin Johnson — Tennessee Titans (2nd round, No. 43 overall)
The Titans took Johnson two picks ahead of their selection of Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, assuring he’ll be reunited with Nittany Lion teammate DaQuan Jones — the last Penn State defensive tackle to be drafted (2014). Jones and Jurell Casey hold down the starting end spots in Tennessee’s 3-4 base set, so Johnson will battle with incumbent nose tackle Al Woods for playing time on the interior. In a deep defensive tackle crop this spring, Johnson’s athletic ability for his 6-foot-4, 314-pound frame was more than enough to sell the Titans on his potential to be a starter down the road.
Christian Hackenberg — New York Jets (2nd round, No. 51 overall)
It seems like almost every pre- and post-draft column describing Hackenberg turned the term “polarizing” into a cliché of sorts, used to over-analyze his inconsistent play the past two seasons. Hackenberg, despite Ryan Fitzpatrick’s fluctuating free agency status with the Jets, will certainly be one of the three quarterbacks on New York’s roster this fall, but cynics will likely have to wait on his debut, which is an ideal scenario for Penn State’s most storied gunslinger to continue his development.
Head coach Todd Bowles has enough confidence in Geno Smith to effectively name him the starter this preseason should Fitzpatrick’s contract not work out, but if the bearded vet returns, Bryce Petty’s future with the organization would undoubtedly be in limbo. Despite taking the Baylor standout in the fourth round (No. 103 overall) in last year’s draft, Petty appears to be the odd man out. If everything goes according to plan and Fitzpatrick returns, Hackenberg will have the luxury of refining his accuracy and footwork. He’s already a natural in the meeting room, having developed an advanced knowledge of pro-style concepts throughout his high school and college career.
Carl Nassib — Cleveland Browns (3rd round, No. 65 overall)
The Browns loaded up on wide receivers, using six of their 14 picks on pass catchers, but Cleveland also valued high production at defensive end. After taking Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year Emmanuel Ogbah — a junior out of Oklahoma State — with the first selection of the second round, the Dawg Pound gladly initiated Nassib to the pack. In fact, Nassib and Ogbah went finished 2015 first and fourth in the NCAA for sacks, with 15.5 and 13.0, respectively. The 6-foot-7 edge rusher will keep a hand in the ground — BSD reports that the Browns will move him to defensive tackle.
Anthony Zettel — Detroit Lions (6th round, No. 202 overall)
Zettel returns home to the Great Lake State to play for Jim Caldwell and the Lions two-and-a-half hours from his native West Branch, Mich. Jason Jones and Ziggy Ansah are entrenched as Detroit’s starting defensive ends, but the extremely athletic Zettel could certainly find himself as a regular part of the Lions’ 4-3 rotation with a strong preseason camp. As the lone end drafted by Detroit, Zettel will have the chance to show off his repertoire of hand moves.
Jordan Lucas — Miami Dolphins (6th round, No. 204 overall)
Lucas unfortunately missed the last three-and-a-half games of his productive career and the NFL Combine after going down with a shoulder injury at Northwestern. The New Rochelle, N.Y., native played his senior season at safety after spending the first three years at cornerback where he’s projected to return for the Dolphins. Both of the Dolphins’ starters in 2015, Brent Grimes and Brice McCain, are now in Tampa Bay and Tennessee, respectively, meaning Lucas will battle Bobby McCain and former Michigan State two-way standout Tony Lippett, among others, for snaps at corner.
Undrafted Free Agents
Tarow Barney — New York Jets
Barney, a rotational defensive tackle during his time in Happy Valley, finds himself in at a crowded position group in New York. Operating out of a 3-4 base defense, the Jets feature standouts Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and Leonard Williams rounding out the starting bunch, while players like Jarvis Jenkins and Mike Catapano serve as reserves. Barney needs to stand out among the crowd in rookie minicamp if he wants to hang around come training camp.
Trevor Williams — San Diego Chargers
A former wide receiver, Williams finds himself in a relatively top-heavy cornerback situation on the west coast, with big-ticket star Brandon Flowers and second year standout Jason Verrett man the No. 1 and No. 2 spots. Behind them are a handful of players, but are most notably led by slot man Casey Hayward. Williams faces an uphill battle, but if he plays his game and flashes some grit in doing the little things, he could remain a Charger well past the summer.
After watching him as a redshirt freshman in 2012, Kyle Carter was thought to be one of the team’s rising stars as a versatile pass-catcher who would only improve. Unfortunately, Carter regressed and never came close to matching his rookie totals of 36 catches, 453 yards, and two touchdowns. His playing time dwindled, but every now and then he’d flash that playmaking ability he put on display weekly in 2012. Despite posting the worst numbers of his career in his senior season, the Minnesota Vikings took a chance on Carter as an undrafted free agent. The Vikings run five-deep at the tight end position, and at 243 pounds, he enters as the lightest tight end by a wide margin.
Carter, who struggled as a blocker at times during his Penn State career, needs to flash his pass catching prowess as he tries to hang on as an H-back with the hopes of beating out one of Minnesota’s fringe players for a roster spot.
Steven Bench — Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After transferring to USF following the 2012 season, Bench never stuck in the Bulls’ lineup during his three years in Tampa. Then-head coach Bill O’Brien told Bench that he likely wouldn’t see any first team action with Christian Hackenberg in the mix, which prompted him to switch schools. Now, Bench finds himself vying to hold onto a spot on Tampa Bay’s roster behind Jameis Winston.