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Penn State In The NFL: Rookie Preseason Evaluations

This year’s crop of NFL rookies from Penn State carry a bit more intrigue than past year’s classes given the stature of certain players it boasts. Christian Hackenberg, Carl Nassib, Anthony Zettel, and Austin Johnson headline 2016’s class of NFL ambassadors to Penn State, and with one preseason game remaining, it’s time to gauge each player’s progress as they approach week one.

QB Christian Hackenberg, NY Jets


After spending two preseason games on the bench, Jets second round pick Christian Hackenberg finally saw live game action against the New York Giants. The result? A mixed bag, but mainly positive. The rookie finished 6/16 for 105 yards, a touchdown, and a late interception. Despite the buzz surrounding his throwing mechanics — offensive coordinator Chan Gailey said Hackenberg’s mechanics are akin to a golfer’s swing in that it could take a year to correct the issue — the quarterback orchestrated a 75-yard touchdown drive on his first series as a pro, capping it off with a gorgeous pass to receiver Robby Anderson in the corner for a touchdown.

While this drive was a thing of beauty, Hackenberg had a few throws find the turf, highlighted by a broken screen play that ended with a laser into the ground. Hackenberg is expected to get good reps in New York’s preseason finale against the Eagles with fellow backup Geno Smith expected to sit, and fans should savor the performance; the Jets don’t plan on playing their rookie project anytime soon. Barring catastrophic circumstances, Hackenberg won’t see the field again until next season.

Though it wasn’t a perfect performance, there’s plenty to be excited about with what Hackenberg proved he’s capable of. If he can build on the progress he’s made as an observer and a student, the future bodes well for the young passer.

DT Tarow Barney, NY Jets

The undrafted free agent defensive tackle caught on with the Jets and teammate Christian Hackenberg shortly after the draft concluded as a project and a longshot to even make the roster. Now, after a steady preseason, he’s survived the initial wave of cuts to hang around for another preseason game.

He sits third on the depth chart to a seven year veteran in Steve McLendon and a second year man in Deon Simon. Barney needs a strong performance against the Eagles to cement a spot on the final 53.

DE Carl Nassib, Cleveland Browns

Photo: John Kuntz,
Photo: John Kuntz,

Well, this is unexpected — but is it really? Expected to face a stiff transition from the college game to the pros, Carl Nassib, Cleveland’s third round pick, did what he usually does when doubted: he produces. Through three preseason games, Nassib has four total tackles, but leads the team in sacks with two, and is one of two Cleveland defenders with a forced fumble to their name.

Many thought Nassib would stuggle against NFL offensive tackles, but it’s been the opposite for the rookie thus far. His combination of speed, size, and strength have proven deadly — proving that he’s up to the challenge of carving his way into NFL backfields. His approach to the game has remained the same. Teammates seemed alarmed at his pregame intensity — evident in his approach tracing back to his high school days — but it’s worked wonders so far.

Nassib is listed as the team’s No. 2 weakside defensive end, but if his stellar play continues, expect his snap count to keep rising. Also, here’s a Madden 17 cheatcode for those hardcore gamers out there: play No. 94.

DT Austin Johnson, Tennessee Titans

Austin Johnson PSU vs. Indiana

It’s been a quiet preseason for the first Nittany Lion off the board. Johnson, Tennessee’s second round pick, hasn’t made too much of a dent on the field having made only five tackles with limited opportunities. In fact, he’s made more of an impact in the kick return department with seven yards to his credit (likely off a squib) — and no, it wasn’t anything like this:

Unfortunately, he’s buried on the depth chart behind fellow nose tackles Al Woods and Antwaun Woods, meaning he’ll likely see the field primarily as a special teams blocker or a situational defender. Then again, the NFL is a fickle beast, and injuries are an unfortunate reality of the game. If one goes down, Johnson’s number might be called in relief.

DE Anthony Zettel, Detroit Lions

Anthony Zettel

Drafted in the sixth round as a defensive end (Zettel thrived at defensive tackle at Penn State), Zettel’s preseason should certainly secure him a spot on Detroit’s roster. He’s made the most of his snaps, recording six tackles, one sack, and one forced fumble, showing coaches his ability to produce on the outside.

His bull rush is impeccable, but he still finds himself sitting third on the Lions’ depth chart behind Ezekiel Ansah and Wallace Gilberry, meaning like Johnson he’ll need to make the most of special teams snaps, unless injuries plague Detroit’s line.

However, he’s one pick six away from vaulting up the depth chart. Just be sure to drop him in coverage.

Honorable Mention

K Sam Ficken

Ficken finally got his NFL opportunity (preseason at least) with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but unfortunately wasn’t able to make it through the first wave of cuts.

However, he was able to prove his leg strength throughout training camp, meaning there’s a chance his phone might ring during the regular season if teams make some changes in their respective kicking departments — Robert Aguayo, you’ve been warned.

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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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